CARY – When the North Carolina women’s soccer team lost its leading scorer, Alessia Russo, to a season-ending injury on the final day of the regular season, it became evident that someone – or multiple players – would have to pick up the slack in order for the Tar Heels to achieve their goals as a team.
One month later, UNC (21-3-2) is one victory against Florida State on Sunday away from winning a national championship for the first time since 2012, largely because of the offensive prowess of Julia Ashley.
Who knew UNC’s most in-form offensive playmaker down the stretch would be its right back, who has transformed from quality defender to the most likely Tar Heel to be involved on any given goal?
Through five NCAA Tournament matches, the senior captain has notched five assists and three goals, none bigger than her match-winner in the 108th minute against Georgetown (21-1-3) Friday night in the semifinals of the College Cup at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Moments after Ashley poked her shot past Georgetown backup goalkeeper Lauren Gallagher, a dog pile celebration ensued. While UNC is a women’s soccer dynasty, this moment is new for these Tar Heels, none of whom have had the opportunity to play for a national title.
“Honestly, I really want this,” Ashley said. “Like, I want this so much, and my whole team does, too. I’m just trying to get us there.”
The difference-making goal against the Hoyas was the climax of a comprehensive counterattack powered by Ashley, left back Emily Fox, midfielder Brianna Pinto and forward Rachael Dorwart. Link-up play between Ashley and Pinto in the midfield had the Tar Heels approaching the 18-yard box before a one-two between Ashley and Dorwart led to the game-winner. The play was free-flowing, evidence of the chemistry the Tar Heels have among each other.
“I can’t say I planned that one,” Ashley said with a smile.
And to be honest, Ashley can’t really say she planned her overall uptick in offensive production. Through UNC’s first 21 games of the season, she had three goals and five assists. In five NCAA Tournament matches, she’s matched that output.
Earlier this postseason, after UNC advanced past UCLA in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks, Ashley attributed her newfound offensive prowess to the realization that her days as a Tar Heel are numbered, with her final season of eligibility nearing its end. Even on a night where UNC appeared to let a golden chance to win slip by when midfielder Taylor Otto saw her penalty kick saved in the 85th minute – a moment the redshirt sophomore was worried cost her team the game – Ashley willed UNC to another victory.