DURHAM, N.C. — Taylor Otto hit the pitch just outside the penalty arc, grabbing her lower left leg. The redshirt junior midfielder let out a shriek loud enough to be heard from inside the press box at Duke’s Koskinen Stadium.
It had already been a frustrating outing for the No. 1 North Carolina women’s soccer team in its 1-0 win against LSU on Thursday in the first game of the Duke Nike Classic. But in the 36th minute, a rainy afternoon turned dreary for the Tar Heels when two trainers carried Otto off the pitch.
The team captain, who has already battled through multiple knee injuries, was out for the game.
And after neither team had found the back of the net with less than 20 minutes left, it looked as if UNC would be held scoreless for the first time this season.
Then, in the 71st minute, a familiar hero emerged for the Tar Heels.
Brianna Pinto collected a pass from sophomore forward Rachel Jones near the right side of the penalty arc and fired a strike that sunk into the top left pocket of the net. The goal allowed UNC to escape with the victory.
“We’re never gonna hang our heads when things aren’t going our way,” Pinto said after the match. “And we always believe that we can score, so when the moment came, we were really excited.”
The sophomore midfielder, who entered Thursday leading the Tar Heels in goals and points, now has four goals and nine points through five games.
Pinto’s game-winner marked yet another awe-inspiring moment for the Durham native.
“I’m thrilled that Pinto continues to demonstrate her class with that wonder strike in a game where it could’ve basically gone South,” head coach Anson Dorrance said.
However, even with UNC preserving its unblemished record, Otto’s injury leaves questions. Though Dorrance didn’t know the type of injury she suffered, he confirmed after the match that tests showed it was not an Achilles tear.
Last season, Otto was tied for third on the team with 16 points, tied for fourth in goals with five and third in assists with six. Her absence for a lengthy period would be detrimental to a team looking to capture its 23rd national championship.
“Hopefully, it’s something that, with time, she can come back and jump back on the field for us, because she’s a significant player for us,” Dorrance said. “... We know she’s out for an extended period; I certainly don’t know how long.”
Pinto said Otto is her “best friend” and that seeing her go down early in the match inspired her, and the team, to continue to be resilient, despite frustrating moments early in the match.
“She’d want us to still carry our beliefs through the game and play for her, in a sense,” Pinto said. “I think that motivated us a little bit. We were like, ‘We don’t have Taylor, so we just have to work twice as hard.’ Hopefully she’ll bounce right back and we’ll have her back by the end of the season.”
Even though Dorrance hung his head while discussing Otto’s injury after the match, he made sure to highlight Pinto’s heroics, which he’s beginning to get used to. He said what he loves the most about his young star — more than her talent and upside — is her ambition in high-pressure situations.
For Pinto, though, the goal was simply another day at the office.
“Scoring the goal was a moment of perseverance,” she said. “I think perseverance is an innate quality for every Carolina team. And it just takes time for that to show.”
Now, Pinto and her teammates must persevere, at least for the time being, without one of their on-field and locker room leaders.
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