The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday February 3rd

Can UNC women's soccer make its way back to the NCAA title game in 2019?

UNC women's soccer watches FSU receive trophies after the NCAA Championship game at WakeMed Soccer Park on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. UNC lost 0-1 against FSU.
Buy Photos UNC women's soccer watches FSU receive trophies after the NCAA Championship game at WakeMed Soccer Park on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. UNC lost 0-1 against FSU.

The North Carolina women's soccer team was a game away from a 22nd NCAA championship in 2018. Then, heartbreak. 

The Tar Heels cruised their way to a perfect 10-0 conference record, but fell at the hands of Florida State in the ACC Championship. FSU's Kristina Lynch netted a goal with six minutes and change to play, breaking a 2-2 tie and snatching a conference championship from Anson Dorrance's squad.

It would be the first of two title games that UNC lost to the Seminoles last season.

The Tar Heels ripped off five wins, including a nerve-wracking penalty kicks victory against UCLA in the quarterfinals, and found a familiar opponent waiting for them. Nearly a month after the conference title loss, North Carolina got its FSU rematch – in the national championship.

A redemption win for UNC wasn't in the cards, however. After a ball deflected off of UNC's Lotte Wubben-Moy and found the back of the net at the 59:53 mark, Florida State took a 1-0 lead that it would hold until the final buzzer. Revenge was not to be – or at least, it would have to wait until Oct. 24 of the next year.

That's when the Tar Heels will host FSU at the new UNC Soccer Stadium in their penultimate home game of the season. UNC will play its first game at the snazzy new stadium on Thursday, when it hosts Indiana as part of the Carolina Nike Classic. Then, on Sunday, UNC has an early season rivalry bout with Duke – also in the Carolina Nike Classic – though not technically a part of the team's conference schedule. 

The Tar Heels' quest for back-to-back perfect seasons in ACC play won't begin until Sept. 21 at Louisville. From there, highlights include a home face-off with N.C. State on Sept. 26, a Duke rematch in Durham on Oct. 10 and senior night versus Virginia Tech on Oct. 27. Likely the biggest test will be the aforementioned tilt with Florida State, though plenty of other challenges abound.

Not that this team isn't up to the task. The Tar Heels were perhaps the best team in the country with Alessia Russo in the lineup, and were still one of the best when she went down with a broken leg against Wake Forest. Despite the early exit, Russo tied for the team lead in goals with six and tallied four game-winning scores. 

Russo is expected to be healthier and deadlier than ever when the season begins. The junior striker was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List, for an award given to the best player in the country, along with a pair of teammates – redshirt junior midfielder Taylor Otto and sophomore midfielder Brianna Pinto.

Otto has battled injuries of her own during her time in Chapel Hill, but nonetheless figures to be an integral part of the North Carolina attack this season. Last year, she was named a first-team All-ACC selection and was a member of the ACC All-Tournament Team; she's also a versatile player who won ACC Defensive Player of the Week and tied for fourth on the team in goals with five.

Finally, Pinto enters her second year in Carolina blue as a preseason All-ACC selection. That's probably because as a first-year, she was a member of the ACC All-Tournament Team and earned a first-team All-ACC nod. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Those three form a foundational trio that the Tar Heels will build around, but that isn't to say that there won't be plenty of other players who will contribute. Dorrance's team is predictably deep – deep and talented enough to earn the No. 2 spot in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll.

Who's number one? You guessed it – Florida State. But if anyone can upend the Seminoles, it's this year's North Carolina team.

@ryantwilcox

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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