Alex Rose stood at the top of the box, watched as the ball was dribbled up the field and thought of his game plan.
The junior striker took a few baby steps forward, lunging left before suddenly running right, dodging the defender and getting open for the pass. As the ball landed at his feet, Rose held it, using his long legs to block the defender as he waited for his team to fall into the box. It’s something he’s spent months practicing.
This time, Rose laid the ball off to his teammate, and watched as he shot it into the back of the net.
“He knows that he's in there to score goals and he does that, but that can't be the only thing he does,” senior midfielder Jeremy Kelly said. “And he's learning to appreciate the pressing, the defending, the kind of getting stuck in and being tough.”
This season, Rose leads UNC (7-7-4, 3-5-0 ACC) in points (16) and goals (seven). He’s had a career-high 15 starts, played in 17 games. He’s accumulated 30 shots, 11 on goal, two game-winning goals and lastly, played 1044 minutes. And these numbers may continue to rise as the team waits to hear about the NCAA Tournament.
But it hasn’t always been like this. Rose was originally committed to Stanford, but the school passed him over. He came to UNC as a starter, but an injury sidelined him just five games into his first season. Still, Rose kept his head down and worked hard in the gym and on the field. He stayed focused, trusting the process.
“Things will take time,” Rose said. “Not everything is going to go your way. It’s just how you decide to look at things.
“You can either complain or go work for it, but it’s on you.”
‘Blessing in disguise’
Rose dominated at North Carolina FC’s Academy level, the top team in the youth organization.
While most kids play three years in Academy, which was originally known as the RailHawks, Rose played four, electing to focus on NCFC rather than his high school team. He accumulated over 100 goals during that time, and was the top scorer in all of Academy for two years.
“That's when he kind of started getting all the interest, once he started getting at that level where he was,” Pamela Rose, Alex’s mother, said. “... If you made Academy, most of the kids in Academy were probably going to go play college ball either DI, II or III.”
Sure enough, schools came knocking. A few days prior to a soccer camp at Stanford, a 16-year-old Alex received an offer from Duke. He’d grown up in the Triangle his entire life, was born and raised a Tar Heel, but was strongly considering staying close to home. It was his mom who convinced him that visiting Stanford wouldn’t hurt.
“I kept all along saying, ‘I know you love this area. You love the ACC, but you want to broaden your horizons,’” Pam said. “‘You don't know what else is out there.’”
Listening to his mom, Alex attended the camp and was offered a full-ride scholarship on the spot. He was in love with Stanford, but he needed to be accepted as a student before things became official. The requirements were a 28 on the ACT, a 4.0 GPA by the end of senior year and all As and Bs.
What kept him out of Stanford was a C in precalculus, a class he had to retake after his credits didn’t transfer when he came home from training at the IMG Academy.
“As bad as it may sound, it probably is a blessing in disguise because it ended up making me come to UNC,” Rose said.
‘A midfielder’s dream’
When Kelly, Rose’s former Academy teammate, heard about Stanford passing over Rose, he knew that he needed to get the local recruit to officially visit UNC.
“Once we realized that he wasn't going to Stanford, we were like, ‘Oh, maybe we have a chance again,’” Kelly said. “It was disappointing for him not to go to Stanford, but for me, it worked out for the best because he did get to come to Carolina. I knew he loved it and I knew we'd love having him around.”
Before Rose got to UNC, all Jack Skahan knew was that Rose was a big goal scorer, which was something that appealed to him.
“I knew he'd be a forward that I'd like to play with because he finishes off chances and goal scoring is pretty hard to come by,” Skahan said. “It's not like anybody can just have a knack for it and he's got a big knack for it.
“He's kind of like a midfielders dream.”
The minute he stepped onto campus, Rose made an impact. He was a starter in the preseason and recorded his first collegiate goal in the second game of the season.
But things started to go downhill after that moment.
“It's almost like a deer in the headlights when they come in, and it's like, everything's new, and they obviously can't predict what's coming next,” head coach Carlos Somoano said. “And I think it was like that for Rosey, just kind of fell down on that path. If you veer a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right and kind of misstep, it's really hard to catch.
“It's really hard to get back on the train.”
Rose only appeared in five games his first season in 2017 because of a freak scooter accident.
“I was driving the moped and some lady was pulling into Loudermilk,” Rose said. “I was like turning the corner and she was turning. I was either going to get hit by car or try to just pull over.
“So I pulled over and ended up having a little hole in my foot.”
His academics started to slip too, and Rose briefly considered transferring.
“I knew I wasn't going to do it, but I was like, ‘I want to get out of here,’” Rose said.
He had a wake-up call halfway through the year after running into academic trouble, and since then, Rose and his teammates say he turned over a new leaf.
“He's figured out how to manage his schedule, and he does well in class and he knows what’s important, and he focuses on that,” Skahan said. “No 18-year-old has their head completely screwed on, but he for sure knows what's going on now and knows what's important and knows how to complete what he needs to do and have fun doing it.”
Kelly ran up the field before passing the ball to Skahan, avoiding a few Duke defenders along the way.
Rose, now a junior, waited inside the box, prepared to break out. Skahan crossed the ball into the box, and Rose immediately tapped it into the back of the net. Without hesitation, Rose turned around and pointed at Skahan and Kelly, a moment from this season that Kelly will never forget.
“It's something that, especially as a senior, you kind of learn to cherish because there are ups and downs, but one of the biggest parts of playing soccer is the guys you do it with,” Kelly said.
This moment was a long time coming for Rose. After going through Stanford passing over him, being at the top of the Academy league to being out his first year at UNC, Rose is now the lead scorer for the Tar Heels, playing in more games than he did in his first two years combined.
“This isn't this isn't very surprising,” said Michael Coe, Rose’s best friend since elementary school. “I think you can ask any of his friends and this is what we always expected. We're surprised that it not necessarily took this long but that he hasn't been doing this.”
Somoano described his striker as a ‘fox in the box’ this season, always being sneaky and popping up at the right time.
“In the 18 area, he's just looking to kind of sniff out where you can score a goal or how to pounce on a loose ball or being in a position to score,” Somoano said.
This is who he is. And as UNC waits to hear its NCAA Tournament fate, he’ll continue to keep his head down and put in the work to stay true to himself.
“We always knew he could get to this point, to be the leading goalscorer, and he finally has,” Skahan said. “He was hungry for a while to do it, and now that he's able to get on a goal-scoring streak in the season, it’s pretty cool for him.
“... He’s Rose. That’s just the way you explain him.”
‘Persistence.’ ‘Chase your dreams.’ ‘Rise and grind.’
These are a few things his friends and family said Rose taught them. But the biggest lesson he’s learned throughout his own journey? Trust the process.
“Be patient and sort of just wait for your time,” Rose said, “because good things are gonna come if you just put your head down and absolutely work to your full capabilities.”
@DTHSports | firstname.lastname@example.org
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.