For three games in the ACC Tournament, North Carolina was without one of it’s premier defenders Emily Fox, who was away in Europe with the US Women’s National Team. Fox also missed the first two games of the NCAA tournament against Howard and Kansas, and played sparingly in the third match against Virginia Tech.
Yet the team has prevailed.
If a championship game is something new for this current North Carolina team, expectations are not. The most storied program in college soccer history has collected 21 NCAA National Championships. Notre Dame, the next closest program, has three. But those teams and those players have moved on, and now it’s on the current batch of Tar Heels to play the last game of the year.
“I really want this,” senior defender Julia Ashley said. “I want this so much. My whole team does too, and I’m just trying to get us there.”
Ashley, who has been a force of nature from the right-back position with three goals and five assists in the NCAA tournament, scored the game-winning goal in the second-overtime period to topple Georgetown in one of the toughest matches North Carolina has played all year.
She has not done it on her own, though. Fellow captains Annie Kingman and Taylor Otto have given this team some veteran leadership, while Hall of Fame head coach Anson Dorrance stands on the sidelines, as he always does.
“What I love about this group… we’ve got extraordinary leaders,” Dorrance said. “Honestly I haven’t done anything. They are their own leaders.”
UNC will need plenty of leadership if it hopes to finish its season on a high note. The Tar Heels will play Florida State, a team that has given North Carolina one of it’s three losses in 2018.
UNC, for it’s part, remains undaunted. Dorrance selected to play Stanford earlier in the year because, as he said “that team is going to show us where we need work.”
That work has included Otto moving from center midfielder to defensive midfielder, and empowering Ashley and fellow wing-back Fox to attack and make plays in North Carolina’s high press system.
“Now the question is, have we improved enough from those failures to challenges those two outstanding teams,” Dorrance said. “That’s the question, have we improved enough? Do we have enough left in the tank.”
For Ashley and Otto’s part, they see the positives in a rematch, no matter who they face.
“We want to play them again,” Otto said. “We want to show that we’ve grown, and we want to play a great team in the final.”
Ashley agreed, noting “I think it’s really hard to beat a team twice.”
At this point, the players comprising North Carolina’s women’s soccer team are tired. The match against Georgetown went to two overtimes. The match before that against UCLA went all the way to penalty kicks.
Maybe tired legs will catch up with them and the offense by committee will falter when it’s most needed. Or maybe UNC will find it does have enough left in the tank.
Whether or not a fairy tale ending awaits this team remains to be seen, but the Tar Heels are ready to try and weather the final punch.
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