Last Friday, the North Carolina women’s soccer team lost to Duke for the first time since 2015, a loss which was also their first in a regular season ACC game since 2016.
On Thursday, the No. 4 Tar Heels found themselves trailing again — this time against Virginia Tech, 0-2, with ten minutes remaining on the clock. The team was faced with the possibility of losing two games in a row for the first time in five years.
This was the most adversity experienced by UNC in some time, a reality that comes with the territory of being a program with 21 national championship titles.
Having an insurance goal, Virginia Tech opted to put 11 players behind the ball in anticipation of the impending Tar Heel attack. North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance responded by realigning his team’s strategy, with the objective of getting the ball to first-year Emily Colton as frequently as possible.
“We decided to move two lefties to the left side, and all of a sudden, the service from that flank improved," Dorrance said. "Honestly, this got the ball to Colton more often."
Despite being a first-year player, Colton is not uncomfortable being called upon by teammates and coaches in a close game. Dorrance likened her predilection for the spotlight to that of former Tar Heel legends.
"Very rarely does any (first-year) player ever, except for the incomparable Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, who by the way were at the game, have such a performance," Dorrance said.
As the central focus of UNC’s attack down the stretch, Colton bore the brunt of Virginia Tech’s physicality in the second period, in which the Hokies committed six fouls. Sophomore Sam Meza commended Colton’s courage.
"She was unbelievably hard-working and unbelievably brave," Meza said. "She just kept getting into the box and creating havoc."
The tactical adjustments made by North Carolina’s coaching staff paid off, eventually leading to goals by sophomore Avery Patterson and Colton in a span of less than three minutes. The goals brought the Tar Heels up to an even 2-2 score.
Colton credited associate head coach Damon Nahas for the adjustments the team made.
“We knew we had to find a new strategy after Virginia Tech’s second goal," Colton said. "Coach Nahas drew up a new formation, which happened to put each of us in the right positions which I think is how we pulled it off.”
Of Colton’s seven shots, six of them were on goal — a career-high for her. But her impact on the game went well beyond the stat sheet and generated high praise from her head coach.
“That performance out of Colton was a U.S. National Team performance,” Dorrance said. “If that’s the way she’s gonna play, she’ll compete to play in the Olympics and in the World Cup. That’s how well she played today.”
Colton is currently top-ten in the ACC in a number of parameters including shots and goals, which encourages her odds of adding to North Carolina's abounding collection of hardware.
Dorrance certainly thinks so.
“Someone asked me before the game if we were going to have an MVP this season and I said yeah," Dorrance said. "And now after seeing a career game from her, I feel even more confident in saying so.”
Colton deflected the applause, instead acknowledging her teammates and coaches.
"My opportunities to succeed are driven by their belief in my abilities as a player," she said. "And I am incredibly grateful for that.”
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