It’s settled, then. Alex Kimball wants to play for one of college sport’s most prolific dynasties, that of 22 national championships , of perennial trophy-hoisting designs, of the unspoken creed to carry forward the program’s essence: The Tar Heels win. They rinse. They repeat.
But change arrives. Kimball’s not the wide-eyed idolizer of O’Reilly and Maxwell anymore. She’s almost 19. She’s trotting out to the pitch Friday night at Fetzer Field, starting at forward against Missouri in a preseason scrimmage. She looks around. “It’s surreal,” she says. She later scores the lone goal in No. 4 UNC’s sloppy 2-1 loss to unranked Missouri .
She looks around again and sees what she didn’t understand years ago: the tectonic plates that once held steadfast to UNC’s dominance are drifting.
There are internal forces. UNC lost eight starters, namely Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai — the team’s offensive engine that accounted for half of the goals in 2013 before going No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the National Women’s Soccer League draft . Four more joined the professional ranks. A spate of concussions forced defensive stalwart Caitlin Ball to retire before her senior year . Alexa Newfield , a potent goal-scoring threat cut from the same fabric as Dunn and Ohai, can’t play through chronic knee troubles. Katie Bowen , an unrelenting presence in the midfield, will miss the start of the season while playing with the New Zealand national team at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada .
“This is what happens when you lose eight starters,” Coach Anson Dorrance said.
That leaves the Tar Heels in flux. They must search for continuity amid a hellacious opening schedule . The first game brings No. 6 Stanford to Chapel Hill. The third game flings UNC to California for a rematch of the 2013 national quarterfinals with reigning champ UCLA .
But Dorrance, now in his 36th year patrolling the touchlines, sees glimpses of a contender. He starts with his freshman quartet. He already counts freshman back Jessie Scarpa , who missed her 2013 high school season with an ACL tear, among his three best players. Midfielder Annie Kingman , who impressed on the ball in Friday’s scrimmage, figures to have a starting role, as will fellow midfielder Megan Buckingham . They join the returning Amber Munerlyn , Paige Nielsen and Joanna Boyles in an attack that can no longer hinge on do-it-yourself star power.
“Instead of just sitting back and relying on that one person, we all have a chance to go forward,” senior midfielder Brooke Elby said. “This gives more kids an opportunity to be an attacking personality.”
Then there are external forces. Women’s soccer, once a kiddie pool to UNC’s Olympic-sized tub, boasts stiffer competition, more talent and a rougher road to a title. In a different era, one that once featured as few as a dozen teams in the tournament, UNC won 16 of the NCAA’s first 19 championships. But since the field expanded to 64 teams in 2001, UNC has captured five of 13 titles — or, in dynastic vernacular, “only” five of 13 .
“This game,” Dorrance said, “is fraught with challenges.”
So much so that the tonnage of what they’ve lost began saddling UNC’s youngest players with dynasty-sized weight. Elby and her fellow seniors devised their 2014-15 mantra: “New Team, Same Dream .”
“Forget about every personality up top or in the middle that we lost,” Elby said. “We are still North Carolina. We may have new players and we may have a new team, but we have the same dream, and that’s to win a national championship.”
The burden lifted. The vision crystallized once more.
“We’re a young team,” Kimball said. “But we all want a national championship.”
Maybe Kimball does understand. Maybe when everything’s been done already, there is nothing left to do but dream it up again, regardless of injury and parity and departed players.
Perhaps Alex Kimball doesn’t need to be forgiven. She understands, too. The dream remains the same.