CARY — Thursday night marked the culmination of a feat the North Carolina women’s soccer team hadn’t accomplished since 2006 — and head coach Anson Dorrance took notice.
Having already clinched the ACC regular season title, the No. 3 Tar Heels fought past Wake Forest on Senior Night, winning, 1-0, to earn their 10th victory in as many tries against conference opponents in 2018. The last time UNC (15-2-1, 10-0-0 ACC) was perfect against ACC foes was in 2006, a season that ended with a national title.
With the postseason beginning this weekend, UNC will have to turn the page quickly. The quest for a second straight ACC Tournament title begins Sunday, and then quickly after UNC will look for its first NCAA title since 2012. Those two goals understandably hold vast importance.
But after watching his group battle past a scrappy Wake Forest squad after leading scorer Alessia Russo went down with an injury, Dorrance took time to appreciate what his squad accomplished over the past two months.
“In the age of parity, where there are so many good teams with fantastic coaches … that’s an achievement,” Dorrance said. “And I’m very proud of the kids. We’ve gotten better all year. Even today against a very good Wake team, we did some very good things.”
Earning conference win number 10 was anything but easy against the Demon Deacons.
The Tar Heels had a plethora of chances in the attacking third during the first 45 minutes, the most threatening coming in the 36th minute on a strong effort by Russo that was turned away by Wake Forest’s Nonie Frishette.
The two teams entered the break scoreless, and the game took a turn when Russo suffered a lower-body injury five minutes into the second half after colliding with Frishette. In on goal, Russo was chasing down a through ball at the edge of the 18-yard box when she banged into the Demon Deacon goalkeeper, causing her to fall to the ground and grimace in pain.
After being examined by UNC trainers for several minutes, Russo, who’s scored a team-high six goals this season, was helped off the field and did not return.
The severity of her injury isn’t known, but Dorrance said “one of her shins got hit.”
After the Tar Heels’ star sophomore was forced to exit, UNC’s offensive momentum slowed down a bit for the following 20 minutes, and the Demon Deacons’ belief that they could earn a result grew.
“‘Less is one of those players you can’t replace,” forward Madison Schultz said. “We are so lucky to have found her and have her on our team. When she went down we definitely knew that this was a game out of respect to her.”
True to her words, Schultz took it upon herself to help fill the void.
The beneficiary of a precise, curving service from senior defender Julia Ashley, Schultz initially wanted to chest the ball down and then put a shot on frame. But out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Wake Forest’s Frishette far off her line. The opportunity to score right then and there was too good to pass up. She sent a header floating over the oncoming goalkeeper.
“Instinctually, I just went back with it, and she was just totally off her guard,” Schultz said. “It was the dopest goal I’ve ever scored.”
With the postseason right around the corner, Dorrance was happy to see Schultz pick up her third goal of the season. In 2016, he recalled, Schultz scored five goals as a first-year, three of which came in the NCAA Tournament. Dorrance said he’s happy with where the Tar Heels are as a unit, noting that UNC ranks No. 2 in RPI with the NCAA Tournament coming up.
“We have done well against a very good schedule, so I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved,” Dorrance said. “If we can stay anywhere in the top four in the RPI going into the NCAA tournament, I will be ecstatic.”
Throughout the season, one of UNC’s biggest strengths has been its defense. Against the Demon Deacons, the Tar Heels recorded their 11th clean sheet of the season, and they are ranked No. 10 nationally in scoring defense (0.439 goals per match).
As the most important part of the season approaches, UNC defender Ashley is pleased with the way she and her teammates are defending.
“We’re very compact and solid back there,” Ashley said. “Before every game we just talk about (how) we’re like a brick wall. Nobody’s going to get through us.”
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