COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS — Their first collegiate game was a double-overtime loss at Aggie Soccer Stadium.
Fittingly, on that same field, they capped their careers with a national championship. Sunday afternoon, North Carolina’s senior class ended its career at UNC — this time with a win.
The Tar Heels (23-3-1) defeated Stanford 1-0 on Sunday, giving the program its 20th NCAA title and giving the senior class its third ring in four years.
“We knew we had come to Carolina to win and here we had lost our first game of the season,” senior defender Whitney Engen said of her first game at UNC.
“I think to come full circle and win our last game right here on this field meant a lot to us.”
Once again in the title game, the margin of victory was Casey Nogueira.
In the three championship games for UNC’s senior class, Nogueira has either scored or assisted all of UNC’s five goals.
In the third minute, Tobin Heath fed Nogueira. It was her first touch, and as she controlled the ball, the crowd noise increased by a few decibels.
Nogueira stood nearly 30 yards out while standing on the “North Carolina” painted on the Aggie Soccer Stadium field.
She toyed with the ball and the Stanford defender. All the while, Jessica McDonald, who had started the movement, streaked downfield.
Nogueira delivered a ball that bent into the 18-yard box and found McDonald nearly seven yards from the goal. McDonald did not disappoint and found the back of the net just 2:50 into the contest. It was her first goal since Oct. 29 and her ninth of the season.
“Normally when I see Casey going one-v-one versus a defender, I’m usually confident she’s going to beat her most of the time,” McDonald said. “(Head coach) Anson (Dorrance) always talked about slashing defenders. I saw two defenders there, so I kind of went in between them and got a foot on it, and surprisingly, it went in.”
Nogueira was tabbed the Offensive Most Outstanding Player in the College Cup after playing a role in both UNC’s goals during the weekend.
She also scored the lone goal in Friday’s contest against Notre Dame that propelled the Tar Heels to the title match.
“I’m always somehow in the right place at the right time with a lot of the goals, and all the credit goes to everyone else on the team,” Nogueira said.
But unlike the Notre Dame match, where UNC took nearly the entire game to find the back of the net, it took the final 87 minutes to keep Stanford (25-1) off the board.
After a paltry offensive performance in the first half, Stanford came out with an aggressiveness that the previously undefeated Cardinal squad lacked in the first period.
Stanford’s halftime adjustments allowed for more shot opportunities and greater pressure on the ball when UNC had possession.
“It’s just getting used to the swarming around the ball,” Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe said. “You have to give North Carolina credit. They played, they put you under pressure, and they make it difficult for you to get into a rhythm.”
Stanford had a chance in the 55th minute when UNC midfielder Meghan Klingenberg was carded after taking down Stanford senior Hillary Heath just outside the 18-yard box.
UNC goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris punched out the free kick and defender Lucy Bronze cleared to thwart the Stanford attempt.
The intensity of the match continued in the 68th minute, when Stanford’s leading scorer and national player of the year Kelley O’Hara received a yellow card.
Less than four minutes later, she was ejected after another rough play on Engen, the College Cup’s Defensive Most Outstanding Player.
With the red card, the Cardinal was forced to play with only 10 players and lost 32.5 percent of its season’s goal production.
Stanford still played at a competitive level despite the loss of O’Hara, with Christen Press, the team’s second-leading scorer, attempting a shot on goal just one minute after the ejection.
Stanford’s final try came in the 89th minute when Press snuck by the UNC defense on the right side of the field, hit a strike to the left post that ricocheted into the back-right of the net past a diving Ashlyn Harris.
But just before the ball hit the post, Press had been called for offside — wrapping up the game for the Tar Heels.
The victory made the second straight year where UNC knocked off an undefeated team in the national title game.
It also marked the best four-year stretch for a North Carolina senior class since 1997-2000 when that class also won three out of four.
And as the national championship trophies continue to pile, Dorrance swears that it was never by design.
“Absolutely not. I mean, this is no master plan. If you came to my office, you’d be shocked if anything got done.”
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