After leading the Tar Heels to 21 NCAA championships and helping the U.S. women’s national team win its first World Cup title in 1991, UNC women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance has nearly seen it all on the pitch.
The current public health crisis transpiring off the field is much less familiar.
For as decorated as Dorrance is, even he isn’t immune to the question facing many of the nation’s top collegiate programs: How will a team with championship aspirations navigate through a pandemic that has sidelined them for months?
With this question in mind, Dorrance is focused on emphasizing the positives that have come with this time off.
“It’s given us the opportunity to heal, get fit, and also develop our technical platform with wall drills and one-on-one work,” Dorrance said. “Our goal is to still be better than we were before all of this.”
After an extended postseason run last fall, one benefit Dorrance noticed was that some of the players were using the hiatus to recover from lingering injuries, while others were getting settled after concluding a busy schedule representing their national teams. Dorrance was also proud of the team’s commitment to academic excellence, as Dorrance said the team finished with an average GPA of over 3.4, the highest he’s ever seen as a coach.
Like many groups fighting through the pandemic, the team has been using Zoom to stay connected. Every Monday, the group gets together to discuss a wide range of topics.
“Every week we’ve had a different theme,” Dorrance said. “In the first couple of weeks we talked about some of the things we were expecting them to do while sheltering. Later on, we’d sometimes meet with assistant coach Damon Nahas who helped us break down some of our performances and also look at some pro teams and their tactics to kind of shape what we want to do this fall.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the path to a typical fall season once seemed unclear. In late May, things became a bit more promising when the University released a timeline detailing when student-athletes would be allowed to return to campus. The women’s soccer team is scheduled to return for COVID-19 testing on July 13, a date that Dorrance believes is reasonable for his group to get back together.
“Many of the players are here already,” Dorrance said, mentioning that many of those that live locally have stayed near campus during the hiatus. “We’re hoping the majority can return so they can get together on July 13 and work with the strength coach to ensure they’re fit and physically ready to compete.”
Although Dorrance said he has yet to hear an official word from either the NCAA or ACC detailing when the season may begin, he said that some coaches are actually pushing for the season to start early, contradicting the idea of a potential delayed start. Given UNC's plans to begin classes a week earlier than expected, Dorrance believes an earlier start to the season would align better with the new academic calendar.
“If we have an NCAA Tournament, we could have it without collisions with the academic schedule, as unfortunately for us, it usually falls during our finals week,” Dorrance said.
Dorrance said North Carolina's only outgoing starter was Bridgette Andrzejewski, who graduated and was drafted by the Houston Dash in the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League Draft.
Along with the returning talent, Dorrance is encouraged by an impressive recruiting class. Despite not being able to have typical evaluations this spring, Dorrance and his staff are comfortable in each of their abilities.
“When we were recruiting them, our recruiting staff had wonderful excitement of where they’d fit into our team,” Dorrance said. “With proper preparation and hard work, some of them have a chance to start for us.”
In each of the last two seasons, the Tar Heels were at the doorstep of reaching the sport’s pinnacle before losing to Florida State and Stanford, respectively, in the National Championship. Dorrance said he believes that with his current group, they are finding any motivation they can to get themselves over the hump.
“In sports, you try to let any finish motivate you,” Dorrance said. “For us to be where we were the last two seasons, it reminds us to think, ‘you know what, we’re pretty good’, and we can build on that confidence to see if we can get better and get to an even higher level.”
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