When Ernest Bawa’s header found the back of the net, the junior forward sprinted toward the corner flag and did a flip.
Flipping is a common goal-scoring celebration in soccer worldwide, but for Bawa, his acrobatics in North Carolina’s 1-0 win over Boston College in the first round of the ACC Championship had a deeper meaning. After battling multiple injuries throughout his career, Bawa has made the most of his opportunity to provide a spark for the UNC attacking corps.
“The flip was just a spur of the moment — I haven’t done one in four years,” he said. “It was special for me because I got to celebrate with my teammates. They helped me get here, and saw me do rehab all-year round and saw how much I wanted to get back.”
Bawa’s journey through injury recovery has been a long and winding road. He’s worked through three surgeries in just three seasons as a Tar Heel, recently capped by a broken ankle the Portor, Ghana native rehabbed this past summer.
Once he regained strength to begin practicing with North Carolina in June, Bawa broke his wrist, setting him back yet again.
“I had to get over the guilt of getting injured — especially with my wrist,” Bawa said. “I need surgery for it, but I’ve told my (coaches) I’m going to play through it until the end of the season and then I’ll get the surgery. I feel like my team needs me.”
Outside of the black cast wrapped around his right arm, any signs of pain were hard to find for Bawa against the Eagles. In the first 18 minutes of play, Bawa launched four shot attempts.
Though his boots failed to find the back of the net, North Carolina’s attack had time to develop as its defense held Boston College scoreless in the first half. Despite allowing two goals in a three-minute span against Virginia in the team's previous contest, junior defender Riley Thomas knew the back line has begun to make strides.
“Although we were disappointed to concede two goals, we knew we played well defensively,” he said. “I think (Virginia) didn't have a shot until sometime in the second half. We knew we were capable of not conceding a goal.”
In the 77th minute, with the game still scoreless, Bawa darted onto the pitch after a near 20-minute period on the bench. Before he returned to the field, Bawa said his teammates left him with a clear message — “win the game for us.”
Moments later, the speedy attacker helped earn a corner-kick try for the Tar Heels. On his sixth shot attempt of the night, Bawa’s header off the set piece nestled into the bottom right corner of the goal.
“Today by far was my best attacking game,” Bawa said. “My team helped me create a lot of chances and I thought I was dangerous.”
Bawa’s header proved to be the difference, as North Carolina prevailed in the one-goal contest. As the season turns its final corner, head coach Carlos Somoano noted UNC might be hitting its stride at the right time.
“We haven’t quite gotten over the hump in being that elite team nationally,” Somoano said “But we’re as good as anybody at a lot of things.”
After the game, Bawa — the man of the hour — ran to the front row of Dorrance Field where two figures awaited.
It was his host parents, who, after a sporadic invitation, flew down Monday to watch Bawa play in what could be the last home game of the season. As he hugged his host mother, who wore a North Carolina blue hoodie with “Bawa” embroidered along the back, all the steps he made in his journey back to the field came full circle.
“(My host parents) have never been here to watch me start a game,” Bawa said. “Every time I’ve scored a goal here — this year or last year — they’ve never been here. So today was a little special.”
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