Head coach Karen Shelton had her doubts. Four starters gone from the 2018 squad that went 23-0. Another out for the year with injury. A mostly new back line of defenders.
It showed early on, she said. North Carolina had to work for another perfect regular season. The team trailed in five regular-season games, including a 3-1 deficit against Princeton on Sept. 6, and rallied back each time.
Twice in this NCAA Tournament, they did the same — down 1-0 to both Iowa in the quarterfinals and Boston College in Friday’s semifinal. Those turned into 2-1 and 6-3 wins, respectively.
“Someone said that the biggest mistake a team could make against us is scoring on us first,” senior Megan DuVernois said. “Once that happens, we’re like, ‘OK, we’re winning this.’”
Quite fittingly, the Tigers put them behind 1-0 again at Wake Forest's Kentner Stadium with an opening goal just three minutes in. By game’s end, that was a distant memory.
Marissa Creatore equalized, and Eva Smolenaars gave North Carolina its first lead in the 21st minute. By the time sophomore phenom Erin Matson ripped off two more goals in the third period — her eighth and ninth of the tournament, respectively — UNC’s offense was running like a well-oiled machine.
Insurance goals by Smolenaars and Hannah Griggs in the fourth only added to the excitement of a decidedly pro-North Carolina stadium that featured, among others, interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, athletic director Bubba Cunningham and a bus full of undergrads.
“In the middle of the game, everyone stopped and looked at the stands and saw a sea of Carolina Blue,” said Matson, who finished the 2019 season with 33 goals and 81 points. “Those little things today made a difference.”
And the final few minutes of Shelton’s eighth national championship, tied for second-most among all coaches in NCAA history, were decidedly loose. Backup goalies Alex Halpin and Megan Ragusa replaced starter Amanda Hendry. Every player who dressed got minutes. Griggs, a sophomore, scored her first goal of the season.
Hayden said Sunday’s field rush was a bit different than last season. Winning by five goals, of course, is a bit more of a foregone conclusion than the 2-0 win over Maryland in 2018. Not that she minded.
“After the 2017 season, when we said we weren’t going to lose another game, we didn’t mean two years,” Hayden said with a laugh. “That was kind of just about the year after.”
Remembering that loss to Connecticut in the 2017 NCAA semifinals was a common theme Sunday. It came in a penalty shootout, a year after UNC lost to Delaware in the 2016 national championship.
Two senior classes have now hung their hat on that moment. The results have been, to say the least, productive. It’s permeated through newcomers, too — such as Yentl Leemans, who transferred to UNC two years ago, and Matson, who hasn’t lost a game in two seasons as a Tar Heel.
“I didn't get to experience that heartbreak and sadness, but I think that allows me to vicariously live through them and want to do that even more for them …” Matson said. “The girls talk about it all the time: ‘We never want to feel like that again.’ Luckily, the past two years, we haven't.”
After their news conference, Shelton, Matson and Leemans returned to the field, where the party was still very much on. There were live hits on the ACC Network to do, photo ops galore, championship shirts and hats and mini-trophies to gather from nearby NCAA officials.
DuVernois — admittedly light-headed and out of breath from a good 45 minutes of celebration — stopped for a moment, took it all in and smiled.
“Even though it was my last game, I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “I’m just so happy. It was perfect.”
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