When North Carolina’s starting 11 was announced before Sunday's game against Central Florida, Sam Meza wasn't on it.
Rather, the star midfielder returned to the Tar Heels’ bench, as Meza and head coach Anson Dorrance decided to rest the junior from Dallas, Texas. The move appeared logical, since Meza was fresh off logging 80 minutes in UNC’s win over Duke on Thursday.
For Dorrance, he believed his team could defeat the Knights without the play of Meza — a belief that was eventually proved wrong in North Carolina’s 2-1 victory over UCF.
From the first kick, the Tar Heels came out flat. While North Carolina struggled to find its legs, the Knights struck first and scored midway through the first half.
“The first half was tough because we were kind of recovering from a high after that win (over Duke),” redshirt first-year Ally Sentnor said.
It was the first time this year that UNC allowed a first-half goal, and just the second time the team had faced a deficit. To make matters worse, North Carolina presumably had to climb out of its hole with one of its best players sitting the contest out.
But, with his team in unfamiliar territory, Dorrance knew something had to give. At the 28th minute, he subbed in Meza.
“I made a huge mistake,” Dorrance said. “We can not play without Sam Meza on the field. And she poured so much of herself into helping us beat Duke — she needed a rest.”
As Meza scampered onto the field, the second-team All-ACC selection clapped her hands and shouted encouragement to her teammates.
From the first touch she took, a new spark was found within the Tar Heels. As Meza danced around defenders and executed numerous slide tackles, her play started to shift the pendulum in favor of UNC.
In due time, North Carolina would find the equalizer as a Meza slide tackle would set up a possession that eventually resulted in a Sentnor goal. Meza’s game-changing talents — namely on the defensive end — are why Dorrance gave her the nickname ‘Mighty Mouse,” as Meza’s abilities call to mind the classic cartoon character’s catch phrase, “Here I come to save the day.”
“She might be the best player in college soccer right now, because when she’s out there no one can touch her,” Dorrance said. “It’s not like she’s one-dimensional, it’s not like she’s just an attacking player. Defensively, she’s one of the greatest midfielders I’ve ever coached in my life.”
Meza's coach wasn’t the only one showering her with praise. Sentnor noted that her ability to pull off “Sammy slides” provided the Tar Heels with energy and helped calm down the midfield.
Despite all the attention Meza has drawn, she said she tries to look past the noise and instead hone in on the success of her entire team.
“For me, it’s a lot of staying focused on myself and not paying attention to what others are saying,” she said. “I feel like you can get a big head naturally, but for me, I try and stay grounded and focus on what is going to help the team.”
Meza’s team-first mentality would pay off in the second half.
With the game still tied, the junior midfield raced toward two Knight defenders with the ball. Rather than attempt to split UCF’s midfield, Meza dumped it off to sophomore midfielder Emily Colton, who eventually found junior midfielder Avery Patterson. From there, North Carolina’s leading goal scorer took matters into her own hands, as her goal from the wide left side sealed the Tar Heels’ win over the Knights.
And with the Tar Heels’ grueling non-conference slate out of the way, Meza understands her play will be vital in North Carolina’s pursuit for an ACC crown — but she also knows the “Mighty Mouse” has help.
“We’ve faced some challenges but as a team, we’re pretty resilient and we have a special group,” Meza said. “We have so much talent, we’re so deep, and we come in waves.”
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