It’s been a long nine months for the North Carolina women’s soccer team.
In their first match since the narrow loss to Stanford in last year’s NCAA Championship final, the Tar Heels came out in the pouring rain for their season opener against Wake Forest and dominated in a 4-1 win.
UNC, the preseason favorites to win the ACC, started out strong with a pair of goals by juniors Brianna Pinto and Rachel Jones in the 22nd and 24th minutes, respectively. Wake Forest’s lone goal came by way of first-year Sophie Faircloth toward the end of the first period, but UNC responded in the second with another goal from Jones off a penalty kick and a fourth from sophomore Hallie Klanke.
“Before the game, (pushing the offense) was actually one of our points that we wanted to do," Jones said. "We wanted to press them whenever we got an opportunity.”
The Tar Heels’ aggressive offense commanded the pace of the match, outshooting the Demon Deacons 20 to 4. A solid defensive effort helped to keep the ball out of the control of Wake Forest.
Head coach Anson Dorrance commended the second unit on their play in the second period. The Tar Heels' coach reached deep into the roster for the match, using a total of 21 players.
“We think if we’re going to recruit a kid, we’re going to throw them out on the field, and of course that also conforms to the way we want to play anyway, which is a maximum, high-pressure game, and if we’re going to play that kind of game, then you have to play a deep roster," he said.
The 22-time national champions are no strangers to successful season openers. Thursday marked their sixth straight season-opening win for an all-time record of 35-5-2 in those games. Yet, the lead-up to the game was anything but normal, as the team had an extra long preseason amid a global pandemic and nationwide movements for social justice.
“It’s not so much that (COVID-19) made the preseason practices different, because what we had actually was a luxurious, long preseason,” Dorrance said. “... What was kind of nice about the pandemic preseason was that it was long so that we got to train consistently, and we weren't just tapering into games early in the year.”
The team also used some of that extra time to facilitate discussions about racial justice issues. Each player read Ibram X. Kendi’s "How to Be an Antiracist" as part of the team’s book club. Jones reflected on the experience after the game.
“During preseason, my team has really rallied around me, and they realized that there is a lot of stuff going on in regards to racial injustice,” she said. “They understand that I'm more than just an athlete, more than just a Black athlete — and obviously, I am Black — and in order to support me in the best way possible, a lot of them realized that they did have to educate themselves.”
Jones was one of three UNC athletes involved in organizing a march for racial justice at the end of August, along with track and field athletes Nicole Barnes and Lauryn Hall.
A majority of the team knelt during the national anthem, and a moment of silence was held for those affected by social injustices prior to the match. Dorrance wore an armband over the sleeve of his raincoat embossed with the words “Black Lives Matter.”
It was a moment that a few weeks ago seemed unlikely to happen with all the uncertainties prior to the season.
Dorrance admitted that at one point, he didn’t think there would be a season at all. Despite the obstacles, the season did come and the Tar Heels rose to the occasion.
“Do I think this team is going to be an absolute world beater? Well, obviously we have to see if we can continue to improve,” Dorrance said. “And if we don’t suffer from injuries and if we get some kids back from injury, I think we have the potential to have an absolutely extraordinary season.”
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