At 5-foot-4, Alexis Strickland is by no means the tallest player on the North Carolina women’s soccer team. But that didn’t stop the first-year forward from rising up to head in her first career goal for the Tar Heels on Sunday, leading to a 2-0 win against No. 8 Duke in the final game of the Carolina Nike Classic.
UNC plays an aggressive style of soccer, always pressing forward while also having to double back to help on defense. Constant movement means head coach Anson Dorrance frequently turns to his bench and make substitutions. Strickland was one of those substitutions on Sunday.
“There comes a point in the game, when you’re playing a pressing game like we do, when your starters get fatigued, which is why we throw the reserves in,” Dorrance said. “Their energy makes all the difference in the world ... it makes it difficult for any team.”
A little over six minutes after Strickland entered the game, junior Lois Joel was able to fight off a Duke defender and send the ball down the right sideline to first-year Hallie Klanke. Like Strickland, Klanke was also a reserve off the bench, having only been in the game for about 30 seconds at the time.
Klanke crossed a perfect ball to the top of the six-yard box, and Strickland positioned herself behind a Duke defender who misjudged the placement of the pass. When the defender jumped, Strickland was wide open to guide the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal, just 13 seconds before the end of the first half.
“It felt like slow-motion. Honestly it was amazing," Strickland said. "Being a freshman and that’s my first goal, especially against Duke, it’s amazing. Looking at the crowd and seeing everybody cheering and standing up, it was just another level.”
The connection between the fellow first-years for Klanke’s first career assist and Strickland’s first career goal highlights the depth of this year’s roster, a useful resource the Tar Heels will need if they want to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament similar to last season.
“(This win) shows our depth,” Dorrance said. “If you don’t perform, your minutes are gone and we’re gonna bring someone else on.”
In addition to that depth, North Carolina also saw strong performances from its more seasoned veterans. Three of the four starting defenders are juniors or seniors and all four played at least 84 minutes in the win.
The UNC defense didn’t allow a shot on goal by the Blue Devils, and only allowed two shots from Duke the entire night, one of which was blocked in the closing minutes of the game.
“We work so hard on shifting, on covering, on doing our jobs, getting back,” senior Morgan Goff said. “We have a philosophy of doubling back — so every line doubles back and helps defend — so it’s really a team effort.”
Goff was able to help seal the win for the Tar Heels in the 76th minute. The defender found some open space down the left side and whipped in a pass to the penalty spot. In an attempt to clear the ball, Duke’s Caitlin Cosme deflected the ball over her own goalkeeper for an own goal, all but sealing the UNC win.
The combination of young recruits that can capitalize on any small chance they’re given and experienced vets capable of making plays has North Carolina focused on redeeming last year’s loss in the national championship game to Florida State.
“We know the legacy that this team has and we want to leave our mark,” Goff said. “Anson has said so many times that he has enough trophies. He doesn’t want it for himself, so it’s all for us.”
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