The year 1990 seems like a distant memory. George H.W. Bush was president, the Hubble Space Telescope launched and Wilson Phillips topped the charts. And in the small microcosm of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the UNC women’s soccer team was winning its eighth NCAA championship in just its 11th year as an established team.
2020 will mark 30 years since the 1990 women’s soccer team hoisted the NCAA cup on its home field. 30 years since Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, two of the greatest to ever play the game, sported the North Carolina crest on their jerseys. And 30 years since their storybook championship run cemented this UNC team as one of the great dynasties in intercollegiate athletics history.
A Blip on the Season
The wind was furiously blowing across the field in Storrs, Connecticut. In the middle of a torrential downpour, the UNC women’s soccer team was freezing. And dismayed.
The team hadn’t lost a game since Nov. 24, 1985. So when time expired on Sept. 22, 1990, in just the ninth game of the season and the Tar Heels only had two goals to the University of Connecticut Huskies’ three, the 103-game unbeaten streak was done. No longer a perfect season for a team with many players who had never lost at the collegiate level before.
“It felt like an epistemic break,” Courtney Lehmann, a backup goalkeeper for the 1990 team, said. “It was like, 'How could we lose?'”
The game was decided on a disputable call. UNC starting keeper Merridee Proost had been charged with roughing a UConn forward in the overtime period and a quick strike on a penalty kick put the Tar Heels down. With the loss, the team fell from the No. 1 ranking spot for the first time since the second week of the 1986 season.
“The trouble with being consistently in a position of winning games and winning championships is you’re very reluctant to change any part of your alchemy because you don’t know which piece is the piece that’s helping you win each time,” UNC head coach Anson Dorrance said of the loss. “It’s actually the losses that permit you to make changes.”
While Dorrance took it as a learning opportunity, the players swore up and down that they wouldn’t lose again.
“The loss incited a fire and an anger,” Linda Hamilton, former UNC defender and U.S. women's national team superstar, said. “From that moment, our season did change and we lifted our game and really started playing our best soccer of the season after that.”
The rest of the season went according to plan. UNC dominated conference play and reclaimed the No. 1 spot by beating No. 1 Virginia twice – 3-0 in the regular season and 2-0 in the ACC Tournament title game. An NCAA championship was the goal. But first, North Carolina had to meet an old foe.
'Greatest Game in Women's Soccer History'
Hamilton knew N.C. State was gunning for her in that NCAA quarterfinal game. Why wouldn’t they? She had left them to join the enemy.
“N.C. State was an extraordinary rival for us back in those days, and Hamilton was one of the best defenders in the world at the time,” Dorrance said. “There was even more incentive for N.C. State to play hard against us because Linda was now playing with us.”
Hamilton was familiar with N.C. State because she had been with the Wolfpack for three years before transferring her senior year. With her tough-as-nails, aggressive style of defending, she was a player that a team loved to have on its side — but hated when she took the field for the opponent.
“I clearly was not going to be their favorite player from N.C. State and if their motivation wasn’t already to beat UNC, it was to beat UNC with me on the team,” Hamilton said.
The game was intense and immediately physical. The Tar Heels fought tooth and nail, but every goal for UNC was one-upped by the Wolfpack. 90 minutes couldn’t decide it. Neither could the following 10-minute overtime period. The team was battered, bruised and unsure if their championship dreams would come true. The final 10 minutes were daunting.
“Kristine Lilly got us together in the huddle and said, 'We’re not f*cking losing this game,'” Hamilton said. “And there was such a sure tone in her voice as we went into overtime, I was like, ‘We’re going to win.’ She said it and we knew it.”
Sure enough, an unbelievable corner kick from Hamm led to a header finish from forward Rita Tower in the closing minutes to keep the Tar Heels’ dreams alive.
After that win, pronounced by Soccer America as the "Greatest Game in Women's Soccer History," the team ran with the emotional high into the Final Four.
"We wanted revenge"
While UConn and Santa Clara played their semifinals matchup, UNC sat amongst the crowds. Any bystander would’ve seen the team, who had just clinched a spot in the championship with a 2-1 win against Colorado College, in the stands cheering as hard as they could for the Huskies during the double overtime period.
Yes, that’s right. The Tar Heels were actively rooting for the team that snapped their 103-game unbeaten streak.
“We wanted revenge,” Hamilton said.
When the Huskies came away with a 2-1 win, UNC couldn’t wait to get another shot.
Dorrance remembers the pregame speech prior to that championship game. It wasn’t really a speech at all. The longtime coach simply walked to the blackboard and wrote something down.
The score from the one loss that still haunted the team. That’s all they needed.
“We went out there and we just went right for their jugular,” Dorrance said. “We beat them like a drum.”
The loss was avenged with a 6-0 win over UConn, setting a new record for the largest margin of victory in an NCAA Championship match. Every player on the roster graced the field that game and six different UNC players scored, including Lehmann, the third string goalkeeper who took the field as a forward with just four minutes left to play.
A beautiful nutmeg pass set up Lehmann for a lifetime moment.
“It was like a fairytale for me,” Lehmann said. “But if you watch the clip and knew me well as a player, you’d probably realize I shanked the ball. I was aiming for the left corner and I wound up giving it a right spin because I miss hit it.”
A dog pile began. Old pictures from this moment will show Lilly ruffling Lehmann’s hair. They were champions. But they always knew they would be.
“It was not just ‘Let’s go get another one,’” Hamilton said of the team’s preseason goals. “It was ‘We are going to get one.’ That’s who we are, what we do. We get championships.”
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