In September, North Carolina dropped the first of back-to-back games in a 3-0 road loss to USC. Those three goals were the most the storied North Carolina women’s soccer program had allowed since a 4-3 overtime loss to Texas A&M in 2011.
Just five days later, UNC lost 1-0 at home to N.C. State. It was the team’s first loss to the Wolfpack since 2002 — and only the second ever.
But the Tar Heels learned their lessons, grew as a club and are now playing better than they have all season.
“I like to say that we are peaking at the right moment,” first-year forward Madison Schultz said. “So you can say all you want at the beginning of the season about teams and what they are going to be like, but we have an amazing group of girls...
“We couldn’t be playing better at a better time, really.”
Against Virginia, UNC did well to capitalize on the Cavaliers’ mistakes. North Carolina and Virginia are two evenly matched teams — entering Saturday boasting identical conference records and ranking No. 4 and No. 5 in the ACC Tournament bracket, respectively.
But Virginia made two critical errors late in the first half to open the door for a UNC blowout.
The first Tar Heel goal came from Schultz — who scored UNC’s only goal in Thursday’s win over Florida State. Schultz pressured Virginia goalkeeper Morgan Stearns, who fumbled the ball away. Schultz, a substitute, took advantage to come away with the easy goal.
Minutes later, the Cavaliers had the ball in the attacking end and made another mistake — another critical turnover. Suddenly, senior Sarah Ashley Firstenberg found herself with a lot of green grass ahead. She dribbled forward and finished with a brilliant strike to the far side of the goal, giving UNC a 2-0 lead.
Sophomore Julia Ashley scored the third and final goal for the Tar Heels in the second half, tallying her first goal of the season.
It seems to be all coming together now for UNC. The offense has scored 10 goals in its past four games, aided by the emergence of first-year Bridgette Andrzejewski. She’s scored nine goals this season, including seven in ACC regular-season play.
Meanwhile, the defense is as stout as ever. Redshirt senior defender Hanna Gardner has kept the unit prepared and well-orchestrated, and keeper Lindsey Harris has elevated her play in the last few weeks. Harris made some impressive saves Saturday, and Gardner’s slide tackle to prevent a Virginia attack was one of the highlights of the first half.
The goals for the rest of the season are simple, according to Gardner.
“Just to keep fighting, and keep fighting for each other,” she said. “And I think if we do that, we’re really going to give a lot of teams hell. And we’re gonna make a cool run and hopefully do something special.”