Following a long summer of battling the humid Southern heat, the North Carolina women’s soccer team gathered indoors for a different type of challenge.
The gauntlet standing before them was the beep test – a running drill where players line up and run 20 meters between timed intervals.
As the team paced back and forth, head coach Anson Dorrance grazed the sideline and witnessed something he had yet to see in his 44-year tenure. By the time the test concluded, more players had finished with 40 or 50 reps than any previous year.
The 2021 season was an aberration for a program accustomed to being viewed as one of the nation’s best. After a year of dubious firsts – missing the ACC Tournament entirely and dropping the opening game of the NCAA Tournament against South Carolina – the hunger to get back on top has resonated with the No. 10 Tar Heels throughout the grueling offseason.
“Last season left a sour taste in my mouth, for sure,” junior forward Avery Patterson said. “I think we have something to prove, so that’s our main goal.”
Top to bottom, Dorrance said this roster is the deepest he has ever coached. While seniors Aleigh Gambone and Tori Hansen have taken over in terms of leadership, the team’s talented group of incoming first-years have arrived to Chapel Hill ready to make an immediate impact.
First-year Tessa Dellarose, who will play left back, shattered the program beep test record with 57 reps. First-year Tori DellaPeruta, who joins her older sister, Talia, already netted two goals in the Tar Heels’ two exhibition wins.
But perhaps no addition is as intriguing as Ally Sentnor, the former United States Coaches' All-American High School Player of the Year. Despite tearing her ACL in an exhibition against UNCW last season, she is already playing for the United States in the U-20 World Cup just 12 months later.
“She’s the best player of her generation,” Dorrance said. “Now, are we going to see the best player of her generation right now in August? No, ACL full recovery is an 18-month process. We’re certainly going to invest in her, but we’re not going to put the pressure on her that she had coming in last year."
Although the team views its depth as a strength, returning 10 of 11 starters from last season, the Tar Heels lost a key defensive cog in former goalkeeper Claudia Dickey – a three-year starter that graduated and signed a pro contract with the OL Reign.
Throughout the preseason, senior Marz Josephson, first-year Nona Reason and redshirt first-year Emmie Allen have all spent time in net, giving Dorrance a plethora of starting options for the team’s season opener against No. 11 Tennessee on Thursday.
“We can’t replace a player of (Dickey’s) caliber, but we have a great three-way battle brewing between three outstanding goalkeepers that are committed to their craft,” Dorrance said.
While on-field progress has taken most of the spotlight, several players have noticed the team bonding has also risen to a new level.
From preseason soccer tennis tournaments to scavenger hunts on scooters, the Tar Heels have spent more time together off the field, which the team hopes can translate to improved production.
“I think this year’s team chemistry is off the wall,” senior defender Maycee Bell said. “I don’t think I’ve been on a team with chemistry like this.”
For a program with 20 NCAA championships, it might seem like an unusual predicament for the Tar Heels to be chasing teams ranked ahead of them. But with 10 years standing between the team and its last national title, such is the reality for the team this fall.
In the minds of the players who take the field, they know their Hall of Fame coach's mindset hasn't wavered. Instead, it will be up to them to rise to the challenge.
“He’s always expecting excellence, so he hasn’t changed in that aspect because our goal is always the same,” Patterson said. “Last season was on us, so I think it’s our mentality that has changed.”
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