For 45 seasons, UNC women's soccer head coach Anson Dorrance has led his squads to excellence, making the name "Tar Heels" synonymous with the heights of collegiate success to the tune of 22 national titles.
But the last of those titles came in 2009. And this season, for the first time in program history, the Tar Heels missed out on the ACC Tournament. Despite this, UNC moved on to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed, where the team was given a first-round date with South Carolina — the other "Carolina."
In another down season for the Tar Heels, only one question remained: which "Carolina" would prevail?
That question was answered Saturday at Dorrance Field when the Tar Heels suffered a 1-0 defeat to the Gamecocks — North Carolina’s first-ever loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after 39 such consecutive victories.
It also represented the team's first loss at Dorrance Field in the NCAA Tournament since 2014 when they also lost to South Carolina, 1-0, in the third round.
“Obviously in that first-round game, we’ve been pretty consistently successful, and this is the first time we haven’t been,” Dorrance said. “I think that’s a credit to our history, a credit to our consistency and that hasn’t changed anything about our ambitions.”
Losing the game was historic, but the way the Tar Heels lost was not. Including this game, UNC was shut out four times during the 2021 season, despite outshooting the opposition in all four games.
The Tar Heels outshot the Gamecocks 11-9. However, South Carolina goalkeeper Heather Hinz was forced to make a save on three of these shots, which did not require much of an effort by the goalkeeper. For example, with just under 20 minutes left in the game, sophomore midfielder Talia Dellaperuta was the recipient of a pass in the box, but her soft shot slowly made its way into the hands of Hinz. Two UNC shots that Hinz didn’t save went off the goal post, including one in the first half by senior forward Rachel Jones.
“It’s obviously pretty frustrating,” sophomore forward Avery Patterson said. “The amount of opportunities we had off the crosses and the corner kicks, it just adds on to how frustrating it is. We’ve kind of had a wall in front of the goal for our entire season that we haven’t been able to break through.”
The inability to put the ball in the back of the net eventually caught up to North Carolina with less than 10 minutes left in the second half. The Gamecocks penetrated the UNC defense, which had allowed just 0.67 goals per game throughout the season.
“I’m not really sure (what happened),” junior defender Maycee Bell said. “I know they crossed it and it was just a good finish.”
Patterson was guarding graduate forward Luciana Zullo, the South Carolina midfielder who scored, and was in disbelief after watching Zullo get the shot off.
“I thought I had her covered, and I thought I had the near post covered, but she tried shooting through me, and it worked,” Patterson said. “I’m still kind of in shock for how she scored that goal.”
Missing out on the ACC Tournament despite being the No. 7 team in the country and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is not at all how North Carolina thought its season was going to end.
But Dorrance is already looking forward to the season next year, and he is excited about the potential of this young but talented North Carolina team.
“We’re going to be a very tough team to beat next year," he said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.