Four hundred and sixty-eight days.
That’s how long it took redshirt junior Key White to return to the pitch for the North Carolina men's soccer team after being sidelined with injury last year.
After his sophomore season, everything looked to be pointing in the right direction for the Norfolk, Va. native. White was fresh off a breakout year that saw the speedy forward work up the depth chart to a starting role in North Carolina’s ACC Tournament bout against Notre Dame.
But any hopes of establishing himself as a full-time starter last year came to a crashing halt when White suffered a season-ending injury before the year’s start. In his first game back, the redshirt junior picked up right where he left off and helped lead North Carolina to a 2-1 victory over the Air Force Falcons.
Before White’s storybook return took hold, the Tar Heels found themselves in an early deficit.
After possessing the ball in its attacking third during the game’s early minutes, North Carolina was caught ball-watching. With little trouble, forward Thaddaeus Dewing slipped past the Tar Heels’ back line and found the back of the net — an early punch graduate midfielder Milo Garvanian said didn’t rattle the Tar Heels.
“The message all the time is to never let any adversity or any mistake break us down,” he said. “The team knows that whatever comes at us in the game, we have ready to bounce back from.”
UNC’s attack looked to be on the verge of finding the equalizer, earning the night’s first corner kick moments after Dewing’s goal. However, a failed conversion on the kick triggered a cold spurt that stretched into the midway point of the first half.
With the Tar Heels struggling on offense, head coach Carlos Somoano looked to his bench. At the 28th minute, two players subbed into the game for UNC, including White.
Entering a game for the first time in over 15 months, White sent a spark through North Carolina’s attacking unit. From his first step, the forward possessed a pop that was missing from the Tar Heels’ offense all night.
“The way we play is set up out wide and that’s where I really excel,” White said. “When (my teammates) get the ball in the middle, they always know I’m out wide.”
Two minutes after entering the game, White’s rested legs sprinted to an opening near the right side of the goal. As he dribbled inside the goalie box, Air Force’s defense collapsed.
Needing to make a quick decision, Key blistered a pass that dribbled off a pair of Falcon defenders and into the left foot of Garvanian. With one sharp boot, the graduate midfielder found the back of the net and knotted the game up at one goal apiece.
“It felt good to get on the score sheet and contribute,” Garvanian said. “(I was) just doing my part.”
White’s impact didn’t stop there.
With time ticking down in the first half, and the game still tied, White found an opening on the outside of the field. In a transition set, he outran two Air Force defenders — freezing both with a fake shot attempt — and beamed a line-drive shot into the left corner of the goal.
Back like he had never left, White gave North Carolina its first lead of the season.
“(White) gives us a real spark and that has been pretty consistent during the preseason,” Somoano said.
Though his goal would prove to be the night’s final scoring play, White’s presence could be felt for the rest of the game. Out of the halftime break, the redshirt junior was moved into the starting lineup and logged a career-high 54 minutes.
And when asked about White’s return, Somoano couldn’t hold back a smile knowing a crucial piece of his offense has now returned — and maybe better than ever.
“Key is lightning in a bottle — he’s so explosive,” Somoano said. “I don’t care if you prepare for him. It’s hard to deal with him.”
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