UNC athletics saw a successful fall season, claiming its 44th NCAA Championship through an undefeated field hockey season, an ACC regular season title and another appearance in the NCAA title game for women’s soccer.
From the first game against Michigan, a team it would ultimately defeat in the NCAA quarterfinals, the North Carolina field hockey team was dominant. UNC ran through a grueling non-conference schedule that featured the nation’s best teams.
The Tar Heels took down Michigan, Iowa and Princeton. Then it beat Duke twice by a combined score of 7-2. North Carolina became the first No. 1 seed to win the ACC Tournament since the conference expanded in 2014, beating Virginia, 5-1, and fellow Final Four team Wake Forest, 7-2.
UNC’s dominance continued into the NCAA Tournament. No game was ever closer than two goals, and the Tar Heels ultimately took down Maryland in the NCAA final en route to the program’s seventh NCAA title. The Tar Heels' defense was suffocating all season. It posted 10 shutouts and allowed only 16 goals in 23 games. Head coach Karen Shelton cited it as the decisive factor in UNC's title game victory.
"We talked about it in the pregame — defense wins championships," she said. "They do not score, they do not win."
During the season, forward Erin Matson emerged as a star for North Carolina. The first-year led UNC in goals and assists, and was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year. Senior Ashley Hoffman was UNC’s rock throughout the season. The back was the NCAA Tournament MVP, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and also scored UNC’s second-most number of goals. The pair were both named All-Americans, along with senior Eva van't Hoog.
Hoffman, who had been to three consecutive Final Fours and came short of a national title each time, finally achieved her goal.
“At the end of last season right after we lost, we were like, ‘We’re not losing again. As a senior class we refuse to lose all season,'" Hoffman said.
UNC’s 2018 season was nothing short of perfect. The Tar Heels finished 23-0, and outscored opponents 103 to 16.
"It was the perfect ending to the perfect season," Matson said. "I could not have asked for anything better."
The North Carolina women's soccer team's season ended in heartbreak when UNC lost to conference foe Florida State in the NCAA title game. UNC entered the game primed to win its first National Championship since 2012, and UNC's second in the fall of 2018, but fell one goal short.
Until its final game, the women's soccer team was nearly as dominant as the field hockey squad. The Tar Heels went 21-4-2, finished undefeated in conference play and on top of the ACC regular season standings.
When they beat Miami, 2-0, the Tar Heels clinched their first outright ACC regular season title since 2010. Then, the next game, UNC finished its first perfect ACC season since 2006. Head coach Anson Dorrance was proud of his team's accomplishment.
“In the age of parity, where there are so many good teams with fantastic coaches … that’s an achievement,” Dorrance said after the October win.
Yet disaster struck UNC that game. Alessia Russo, the team's leading scorer at the time, broke her right leg against the Demon Deacons. Russo was the team's best offensive player. The sophomore was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year. UNC had to play without her the remainder of the season.
Even without Russo, the Tar Heels went on a roll. They made it to the ACC Championship game but lost, 3-2, to Florida State in a preview of what would come in the NCAA title game.
UNC responded by winning its first three games of the NCAA Championship easily, defeating Howard, Kansas and Virginia Tech by a combined score of 11-1. Sophomore Emily Fox returned from duty with the U.S. National Team against Virginia Tech, and gave the Tar Heels a boost defensively.
After surviving a penalty shootout with UCLA thanks to heroics from goalkeeper Samantha Leshnak, UNC snuck by Georgetown in the College Cup semifinals, but fell short in its rematch with Florida State. After the match, Dorrance thought that UNC played well enough to win.
"Today, if you clipped out the goal that they scored and asked anyone who knows anything about the game, ‘We’ve clipped out the one goal, which team won?’ Guess what they would say? They would say North Carolina,” Dorrance said following the loss.
Despite a great season, UNC will have to wait until next year for another chance to win its 22nd NCAA title in women's soccer.
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