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The Daily Tar Heel

For women's soccer team memories matter more than medals

It happened on Dec. 3" 2006 — a cold rainy Sunday in Cary.

Sometime in the late afternoon the referee blew the final whistle on the North Carolina women's soccer season" and the Tar Heels bore the moniker ""National Champions"" for the 19th time in school history.

One day later"" The Daily Tar Heel's front page headline read: ""Return to the Throne.""

A ""return" because UNC had not won a national title since 2003.

Big whoop" you might say.

 Well, consider this: North Carolina won 16 national championships from 1982-2000.

Then, from 2001-05, UNC won that lone 2003 title and failed to reach the Final Four in the two years following it — the only two times that had happened in program history.

UNC no longer seemed like the omnipotent power in women's college soccer.

Huge ‘whoop.'

But the 2006 Tar Heels posted a 27-1 record en route to a 2-1 championship victory against Notre Dame on that fateful Sunday.

In the title game, UNC started seven freshmen in the second half — a school record. Those freshmen and a trio of sophomores accounted for 71 percent of the team's total minutes played in the game.

So Return to the Throne"" not only referred to that championship but also alluded to a rebirth of UNC's women's soccer dynasty — who could stop these Tar Heels from winning four straight titles?   

In 2006" Yael Averbuch achieved first-team All-America status as a sophomore" and Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira led that fresh-menacing class.

""Coming off our season in 2006" I couldn't have imagined anything better Averbuch said. Going into the next season with the core of our team still intact" I kind of assumed that things would just continue the way they were.""

But" in 2007 North Carolina lost three games in the regular season — unthinkable for a Tar Heel team — and had trouble scoring all year. Then UNC made its earliest exit ever from the NCAA Tournament losing in the third round at home to Notre Dame.

The defeat hit the players like a soccer cleat to the face. They wanted to win four straight championships expected to even.

But they needed to replace departing senior (and current U.S. Olympian) Heather O'Reilly who proved irreplaceable.  As Joni Mitchell once wrote" ""Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?""

And the 2006 magic was gone like the wind.

""No one really stepped up" and we needed someone to" Nogueira said. O'Reilly had been that someone.

The 2007 Tar Heels lost their sense of humor, and practice became a chore instead of a joy.

When that happens"" Averbuch said, you start to not perform as well as a team" and then it becomes even less enjoyable" and it kind of just was a downward spiral."" 

So the once-invincible Tar Heels confronted their own mortality" naivety and fallibility. They realized it takes more than talent alone to win titles. Everything clicked for them in 2006 but everything clacked in 2007.  

But in 2008 Heath said the team encountered both extremes. And when they met adversity the Tar Heels learned to overcome it.

Time heals all wounds as they say. This weekend UNC returns to the NCAA Tournament's Round of 16 — the round where the sky crashed down last year.

Though the Tar Heels yearn to win three more games and claim their second championship — and you bet your bootstraps they do — the destination means far less to them than the ride.

And that's what makes this team special.

Whatever UNC lost from 2006 to 2007 — not just in talent" but in zany and stabilizing personalities — it regained this year.

""I don't want this season to end" Heath said. This is a really special team" and I want to just savor every minute and every moment.""

But what if 2006 ends up as the only title they ever win?

 ""I would be completely satisfied and equally happy" Averbuch said. Honestly if I played all four years here and never won a national championship" I wouldn't care.""

For these girls"" the memories matter more than the medals.

""Everyone thinks that this program is all about winning" Nogueira said. But when you leave this place the only thing you remember is the people that you played with" and the people that impacted your life and allowed you to grow as a person.""

Sure" winning matters" but ""we win because we enjoy it so much"" Averbuch said. We don't enjoy it because of the wins.""

So maybe the vaunted Classes of 2009 and 2010 will lead the Tar Heels on another ‘return to the throne"' and maybe they won't.

Either way they're already champions.   

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