It is a season that has sparked a question: Are the first signs of UNC's fall beginning to reveal themselves?
"Everybody wants to know the answer to that question," Duke coach Bill Hempen said. "You're just seeing that women's soccer is becoming extremely competitive throughout the country. And they're going to do whatever they can to maintain their supremacy, as they should, as any champion would.
"If anybody is thinking that they're getting easier to play, they're doing their best to make sure that that's not going to happen."
The eighth-ranked Tar Heels, who will play either Liberty or Wake Forest in the second round of the NCAA tournament at home Sunday, definitely made sure of it last weekend. UNC (18-3, 4-3 in the ACC) thrashed its three opponents in the ACC tournament to collect its 12th straight title and 13th overall.
But for the first time, a UNC championship was not a given prior to the tournament. Road losses to Clemson, Florida State and Wake Forest had left the Tar Heels unusually vulnerable.
Several Tar Heels said the erratic schedule they played this year - several games in bunches followed by long layoffs - left them struggling to find a rhythm and perhaps contributed to their losses. Additionally, the loss at Clemson came in backup goalkeeper Kristin DePlatchett's second start of the season.
But there's no question that the Tar Heels' dominance is starting to slip, however slightly. Last season, UNC won the NCAA title after dropping two regular-season games. In 1998, UNC lost once: in the championship game to Florida.
Big reasons for the closing gap between UNC and the rest of the nation are the rises in the popularity of the sport in the United States and the number of top-notch high school players.
"There's an absolute ton of great players out there now," Maryland coach Shannon Higgins-Cirovski said. "There's more than just the five or six that are going to commit to Carolina on a yearly basis."
The Tar Heels have certainly felt the bite of increased recruiting competition. Christie Welsh, who was a national team alternate at this summer's Olympic Games, spurned the Tar Heels and is now an All-American sophomore forward on No. 2 Penn State.
Even UNC freshman forward Alyssa Ramsey, who hails from Cornelius and is the team's second-leading scorer, nearly wasn't a Tar Heel. Had Virginia coach April Heinrichs not left UVa. to coach the national team, Ramsey would never have made a late decision to come to UNC instead.
In years to come, UNC can expect the competition off the field for recruits and on the field in games to only get stiffer. And it's going to start right in its own conference.
Although the 14th-ranked Seminoles lost to UNC 3-0 in the ACC tournament semifinals, they handed the Tar Heels a 3-2 loss during the regular season and should only get better. In his second season, FSU coach Patrick Baker has improved his team's record from 9-10-1 (0-7-1 ACC) to 12-7-2 (2-4-1) with a roster including 10 freshmen.
One of those players is midfielder Emma Breland, this year's ACC rookie of the year, from Trelleborg, Sweden.
"She's going to be calling up her buddies and talking about how great it is over here in the United States, and they're going to get some more," UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. "So they're going to end up with some very experienced freshmen every year they recruit."
So will the Tar Heels. But just like winning, it won't be as easy as it used to be.
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