“Soccer is a bizarre game,” Dorrance said. “It’s punishing.”
Despite losing star sophomore forward Alessia Russo in the last game of the regular season, the team still made it’s way to the ACC Tournament final. It was there that UNC played what would be a preview of the final game of the year. The Tar Heels lost that game to Florida State, too.
“The difference between our loss against Florida State in the ACC final and today is we closed the gap,” Dorrance said. “Those of you that watched the final, it was a clear statement about Florida State being the superior team."
Closing the gap has been something of a theme for UNC this year. After a rare two-game losing streak on a California road trip against Santa Clara and Stanford, the Tar Heels didn’t lose another game until the ACC Tournament.
Dorrance, the winningest coach in women’s soccer history, wanted to play Stanford to see what his team’s gaps were. He made changes, including moving redshirt sophomore Taylor Otto to a new position, and opening up wing-backs Ashley and Emily Fox to attack more.
For the rest of the season, it worked. The loss to FSU in the ACC Championship game was a punch in the mouth, but North Carolina weathered it. The team got Fox back in the third round of the NCAA Championship, after she had missed four games while she was in Europe with the U.S. national team. UNC found its groove against Howard, then Kansas, then Virginia Tech.
UCLA was a different story. Dorrance consistently praised the Bruins team as one of the best he’s ever seen. It was a tough, gritty game that lasted two overtimes before the Tar Heels eventually managed to grind out a win during penalty kicks.
Playing for a season’s life for 120 minutes is exhausting. North Carolina almost did it again in its next match against Georgetown, a double-overtime thriller that saw a series of passes lead to a game-winning goal by Ashley to put her team in position to take it all home in the 108th minute.
Despite the tired legs, North Carolina had chances against Florida State. A header from first-year Rachael Dorwart was only just wide to the left. A through ball to Bridgette Andrzejewski could have been tapped in if she had only just beaten FSU goalkeeper Caroline Jeffers to the ball. A different bounce here, an extra opportunity there, and UNC could have come home with it’s 22nd NCAA Championship.
"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.
Instead, all the team will be left with is the memories of competition. Ashley said that after four years with the team, she doesn’t have any regrets. That she, along with every other member of the North Carolina women’s soccer team, knows the team left it all out on the field.
For all the players, those who will take the pitch again next year and those leaving the program, having those memories will have to be enough.
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