The North Carolina women's soccer team can't seem to shake its injury issues.
After already having lost two starters on its backline to knee injuries, senior center back Julia Dorsey was unavailable for Friday night's matchup against Wake Forest after getting injured in practice. To make matters worse for an already hurting defensive unit, junior midfielder Sam Meza — who head coach Anson Dorrance called one of the greatest defensive midfielders he's ever coached — didn't play in the second half due to injury.
Still, UNC seems to have a response for every hit that its roster has taken this season. With junior Abby Allen and redshirt first-year Emerson Elgin filling in the hole at center back, the Tar Heels still managed to secure their tenth clean sheet of the season in the 1-0 victory on senior night.
"The amazing thing about this program is you have to always be ready to go in," senior defender Tori Hansen said. "Where Abby had not been playing, now she's in the mix, and she's gonna play in that game. And Emerson was gonna play center back — she's never played center back before."
Hansen has been the heart of this defense all season, leading the team in minutes and starting all 15 games so far. The center back has become the de facto leader of the backline, taking charge of a unit that is largely playing out of their natural positions.
First-year left back Tessa Dellarose said she had played forward all her life before coming to UNC, and senior right back Emily Moxley is also listed as a forward on the roster. In dealing with a unit that has seen this much turnover, Hansen has taken a step forward as a communicator on the pitch.
"I'm able to do what I do and and play my game so well because I know she's back behind me, and she's just been a very big leader vocally," Dellarose said.
Hansen has also taken on a larger role in the offense this season, having become one of the team's most effective weapons on corners and penalty kicks.
Early in the second half on Friday, Hansen scored UNC's lone goal off a penalty kick after a Wake Forest defender pushed forward Maddie Dahlien in the back inside the 18-yard box.
"She's one of the leading scorers on our teams at center back," Dorrance said. "I mean, how often do you see that?"
The UNC defense was certainly tested on Friday night, as the Tar Heels were out-possessed for just the second time this season.
UNC's forwards struggled to break through the Wake Forest's backline, which coming into the contest had allowed the fewest goals of any ACC team. Without Meza to win battles for the ball in the midfield, the Demon Deacons were more easily able to push the ball into its attacking third.
"I've got to give Wake full credit because they were in our end," Dorrance said. "There was a stretch where they actually took the game over."
Wake Forest gave UNC several scares in front of the goal in the second half, but Tar Heel defenders were able to stuff the Demon Deacons' attack each time it seemed that they were on the precipice of scoring the tying goal.
Having outscored their opponents 7-0 in their final three-game home stretch, the Tar Heels will face perhaps their greatest challenge of the season yet with three straight away games. Up first is ACC leader Florida State, who leads the conference in goals scored and hasn't lost in Tallahassee this season.
Dellarose said connectedness is what will keep UNC's ever-evolving backline strong through the end of the regular season.
"We're all just a big family here, so anyone who steps in we know they'll get the job done."
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