CARY – Losing your top goal-scorer to a season-ending injury (Alessia Russo) and another key contributor (Emily Fox) to the U.S. Women’s National Team would be a major blow to nearly every team in the country.
For No. 3 North Carolina, those losses still sting but it’s something you just deal with. It helps to have as much depth as the Tar Heels do.
Just don’t say the word depth around Anson Dorrance.
“Everyone talks about our depth,” the UNC head coach said. “Do you know that we have the same amount of scholarship money as all the other schools? We basically have the same number of players as most of them do. There’s a difference between what we do and what everyone else does: we play our depth.”
Could a team really have depth if it didn’t actually make use of its reserves? Semantics aside, the Tar Heels did indeed “play (their) depth” Friday night in their 1-0 win against No. 23 Clemson in the semifinals of the ACC Championship, a result that earned them a spot in Sunday’s title game against No. 7 Florida State. UNC (17-2-1, 10-0-0 ACC) is now one victory away from repeating as conference champions.
They have Rachael Dorwart to thank for that. The first-year forward’s 65th-minute goal from close range was the difference maker on a night where UNC had the majority of the scoring opportunities – they outshot Clemson 10-4 and took nine corner kicks to the Tigers’ two – but didn’t always look keen on making them count. Oddly enough, Dorrance thought UNC looked better in the scoreless first half than it did after halftime, when the decisive goal came.
Having notched the match-winner against the Tigers, Dorwart’s first year at the college level is currently bookended by goals. The Mechanicsburg, Penn., scored in UNC’s season opener on Aug. 16, but saw her playing time decrease because of defensive struggles after starting in the Tar Heels’ first six games and hadn’t scored since then.
“If I recruit a kid … if she’ll defend for me, I’ll play her,” Dorrance said.
The message was received by Dorwart.
“Just not getting as much playing time, I realized that something needed to change,” Dorwart said. “So I just started working on it, committing myself to it every day in practice and it just got better over time.”
Getting better defensively gave Dorwart the chance to showcase what’s she capable of on offense.
Against the Tigers, she started a give-and-go with first-year midfielder Rachel Jones, whose precise service back to Dorwart gave her a good look at goal from just a handful of yards out.
With a defender at her side and Clemson goalkeeper Sandy MacIver closing in, Dorwart deftly finished from the near post.
What was Dorwart’s reaction to her first goal in two and a half months, one that came after lessons were learned about what’s needed to be successful at the college level?
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s such a good feeling. I just know it was a team effort and they all had my back.”
There’s no replacing Russo, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year who scored a team-high six goals before breaking her leg against Wake Forest in the regular-season finale. The same can be said about Fox, who was deemed talented enough by U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis to bring along for a European trip that features matches against Portugal and Scotland from Nov. 8-13.
Yet, UNC is making due. With a spot in the conference title game on the line, the team with six All-ACC selections counted on a player with just one shot on goal in her previous nine matches to be the difference maker.
The last thing Dorrance wants is a pity party.
“You’re never going to hear me whine about anything or lay a list of excuses,” he said. “I don’t expect that from any of my players, and I certainly will never allow myself to do that. So, we have a 30-player roster for a reason.”
And as a result, the Tar Heels will play for another ACC Tournament title on Sunday.
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