CARY — Alessia Russo didn't get to be here last year.
She had to sit on the bench, watching, recovering from a leg that was broken in the last game of the 2018 regular season against Wake Forest. She watched as her team beat Clemson to get to the ACC Championship, then lose it to Florida State.
This year, the junior striker for the North Carolina women's soccer team made one thing clear after she scored the game-winning goal in a 3-0 victory over N.C. State in the ACC Championship Semifinals Friday night.
It was just eight minutes into the game when Russo played the ball to first-year forward Isabel Cox, who took it into the Wolfpack box and tapped it back to Russo. She took one touch and promptly fired.
As she swung her leg, Russo collided with the N.C. State defender, tumbled forward and landed on her knees, grinning as she looked away from the goal she had just scored.
"That's all I want to be doing, is be back on the field," Russo said.
She would need just one touch again to score her second goal of the game, intercepting the ball deep in NCSU territory and rocketing the ball into the net again without breaking her stride.
Those two goals were her first since September 21, when she scored two against Louisville.
"I think it comes down to the credit of the team," Russo said about ending her scoring drought. "I think we've been building over the past few weeks and in training. Our performances on the field have been getting better and better."
The Kent, England native ended the regular season as the Tar Heels' second-leading scorer behind sophomore midfielder Brianna Pinto. Russo's six goals tied her 2018 total, when she won ACC Offensive Player of the Year before her injury.
This year, Russo was named first-team All ACC, along with Pinto and junior defender Emily Fox.
"She's my favorite player to play with," sophomore forward Rachel Jones said. "We're always linking up. I know where she is all the time and she knows where I am."
The striker's reemergence as one of North Carolina's premier offensive threats comes right at the perfect time — the team's ACC Championship opponent, No. 1 Virginia, hasn't lost a game all season.
UNC doesn't plan on making the same mistakes as last year. Against FSU, North Carolina got hit on the chin by a team it had already beaten that year.
Now, the Tar Heels know what it's like to have their mouths bloodied.
"I think we're coming in with a completely different attitude," Jones said. "We all were just talking about how we feel a lot better about our team and the place that we're in now than last year. I think we're humbled, more than anything."
After playing the role of Goliath for most of the season, North Carolina is cast as David against UVA. The Cavaliers are 15-0-3 this season.
"What we're going to see is a team that's very good at possession with talent all over the field," head coach Anson Dorrance said. "(It) has a lot of people that can score goals with talent at every single line."
If North Carolina wants to win its 22nd ACC Championship, it will need Russo to play with the same blend of power and grace that she did on Friday night. This time last year, she had to watch from the bench as her team lost. Now, she'll be able to do something to change that.
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