The numbers on the board in Karen Shelton Stadium not only reflected the outcome of UNC’s game against Penn in the ACC-Ivy League Challenge, but also the team’s undefeated record: 4-0.
To the 2022 squad, ‘four-and-oh’ is a small step in the right direction. Not only did the Tar Heels beat three top-15 teams in their first four games in 2022, but they earned their first shutout win in Karen Shelton Stadium since the 2020 spring season.
The Tar Heels were dominant in the press during regulation, maintaining enough possession to fire off 21 shots throughout the game. Though the Quakers allowed four goals, Penn goalkeeper Hayley Hayden had a career game — making nine saves against the relentless Tar Heels' attack.
“I think our team has a habit of making goalies look great,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “They take a lot of shots and get into a rhythm.”
The score that decided the game came from first-year midfielder and forward Ryleigh Heck in just the third minute of play. Accepting a feed from first-year midfielder and back Sietske Brüning, Heck spun around the goalkeeper for a close-range shot, scoring her third early goal for the Tar Heels this season and further solidifying her spot as a primary UNC playmaker.
“As a freshman, it’s a lot to take in," Heck said. "It’s a big role. Everybody on the team is always like ‘Ry, you’ve got this,’ and it makes me feel comfortable.”
North Carolina continued to press in the second period, as senior forward Erin Matson got a horizontal look from the right side of the cage and batted it in for UNC’s second point. Less than a minute later, junior midfielder Kiersten Thomassey snuck behind the Quaker defensive line to the right of the cage.
“I knew that Penn wasn't really that aware that I was even on the field at that point,” Thomassey said. “And I was screaming, ‘Back post! Back post!’”
A three-way effort off the sticks of first-year forward and midfielder Ashley Sessa, sophomore midfielder Lisa Slinkert and Thomassey clipped the ball in for UNC’s third point.
UNC’s scoring was rounded out during its fourth penalty corner opportunity. The ball was inserted by Sessa, shot by Brüning and then deflected off the stick of senior forward and midfielder Meredith Sholder to the back of the cage for North Carolina’s fourth and final goal: 'four-and-oh.'
Despite North Carolina’s offensive onslaught, the Tar Heels only drew five penalty corners and capitalized on just one of them. This was a point of emphasis by Shelton following UNC's bout against Princeton, a game that saw UNC rack up just three penalty corners compared to the Tiger's six.
On the season, the Tar Heels have only scored three goals from their 21 earned corners, a statistic that has — and will — inhibit them in close games.
“For me, it's more about what happens when we come up with the ball after we press,” Shelton said. “We have a lot of opportunities and we're squandering these opportunities. The fact that we had such strong possession today, and only five penalty corners is a bit concerning.”
A ''four-and-oh' start to a season already marked by challenges from some of the heftiest competition in the NCAA only gathers confidence for the team. The Tar Heels will continue their impetus on the road against California and Stanford this week.
“It's something that we pride ourselves on, to start off challenging ourselves,” Thomassey said. “We use that to build momentum and just keep going throughout the season.”
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