CARY — In the NCAA Tournament, there are no easy outs, especially when playing one of the most aggressive teams in the country. The North Carolina women’s soccer team's senior leadership already knew this, but was reminded of it by a slow first half against Virginia Tech on Sunday.
Having defeated the Hokies twice already this season, the No. 3 Tar Heels looked complacent at times. At least, that’s what head coach Anson Dorrance thought.
“You don’t want to play a team you’ve already beaten twice because motivation is an issue,” Dorrance said. “I thought that was an issue for us in the first half. Obviously motivation for them is not.”
Lack of motivation aside, North Carolina (20-3-1, 10-0 ACC) still found itself up 1-0 at the end of the first half after a goal by redshirt senior Alex Kimball. It’s a testament to the culture the team's leadership has built this season that it was able to put the game away against the Hokies (11-7-3, 5-5 ACC) in the following 45 minutes. They won the game 3-0, advancing to the NCAA quarterfinals.
For UNC, a strong team culture is what has helped the team through the ups and downs of the season. First, the Tar Heels travelled to California and lost two games in a row to No. 7 Santa Clara and No. 1 Stanford. However, they didn’t lose a game for the rest of the regular season.
The team lost star sophomore forward Alessia Russo in the last game before the ACC Tournament. It responded by making it all the way to the ACC Championship before falling to Florida State, 3-2.
North Carolina’s senior leaders have certainly stepped up since that game against the Seminoles.
“We just have such a great group of girls,” said Julia Ashley, a senior defender. “It’s such a huge part of why we’ve been successful this year.”
For the Tar Heels, it’s been Kimball, who replaced Russo, that has brought a burst of energy and tenacity to the team. She tallied not only a goal, but also an assist and had three shots on frame in her 47 minutes on the field.
The redshirt senior knows she has her work cut out for her, replacing one of the most valuable players the team has in the starting lineup.
“I was really just not trying to be Alessia, but just be Alex,” Kimball said. “We have very different styles. And I knew, as a redshirt senior, what Anson wants out of me. To just basically give my team all I have.”
Giving it her all has become Kimball’s calling card on the field in the six games she has started since Russo’s injury. This is also what has helped her earn the respect of her coaches.
“Alex plays with her heart,” Dorrance said. “The thing you’re going to get out of Alex every single game is, she’s gonna push her heart up against the four sides of the field. That’s a human quality that all of us can respect and admire.”
Energy is infectious, and Kimball brings plenty of it. It’s the kind of thing that can help a team like UNC wake up after a less than stellar first half.
“When AK (Kimball) is up there, she just runs all over the place,” Ashley said. “When she’s going after that ball, everyone else needs to double down with her. It’s just an amazing aspect about her; I don’t know anyone else like AK, she runs her butt off.”
Kimball will have to keep that energy going for the remainder of the tournament. She, along with the other seven seniors, made it to the NCAA semifinals back in 2016. Whether or not they can make it there again remains to be seen.
If they do, it'll be a product of the team's leaders showing the way.
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