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.
By scoring and assisting on a daily occurrence, she’s making her final games count.
“Right before we went to the second overtime, I said to my team, ‘Someone’s going to finish this off for us in the next 10 minutes. Who’s it going to be?’” Ashley said. “And I was that player today I guess, but it can be anyone on our team.”
Yet, Ashley struggles to pinpoint a legitimate reason why she’s been producing goals as of late. Her role tactically hasn’t changed much, she said, although UNC head coach Anson Dorrance chimed in as she pondered the topic, lauding Ashley’s “game intelligence.”
What is clear is that Dorrance utilizes a system that gives his outside backs – Ashley and Fox – the freedom to join the attack as much as possible because of the Tar Heels’ use of three central midfielders. In recent weeks, in games of increased importance, Ashley has made the most of that freedom. The ability of Ashley and Fox to get forward was one of the main problems that did the Hoyas in on Friday, Georgetown head coach Dave Nolan said.
“Carolina’s a pretty athletic team, and they put you under pressure,” Nolan said. “There’s such a confidence from both of their fullbacks to just bomb forward.”
The system gives a player like Ashley room to run, which she loves to do. Against UCLA, Dorrance said, Ashley ran over 11 miles, information he has because each UNC player wears a tracking device.
“She can run all day,” Dorrance said.
Now, after watching his most dependable goal-scorer as of late make the sprint from one 18-yard box to the other at the end of Friday’s match, the UNC head coach is curious to see how many miles she logged against the Hoyas.
“That’s the right back who’s finishing a chance from within the penalty box,” Dorrance said with amazement. “That’s incredibly rare – at any level of the game.”
As amazed as she is by her recent goal-scoring fortunes, Ashley has no plans on letting up. Her teammates have rode her offensive wave up to this point and she sees no reason to stop.
“We’ve got one more game … I’ve got to finish it off.”
@DTHSports | email@example.com
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