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Wednesday December 7th

How UNC's Tori Hansen turned heartbreak into triumph in her breakout senior season

Tori Hansen poses for a portrait on Finley Fields in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.
Buy Photos Tori Hansen poses for a portrait on Finley Fields in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.

Even three years later, the moment is still stuck on the mind of Tori Hansen.

In the 2019 Women's College Cup, a tightly contested title game between UNC and Stanford had come down to a penalty kick shootout. Tied 4-4 heading into the sixth round, Hansen, a first-year who had not seen the field in 110 minutes of play, lined up against Stanford's star goalkeeper Katie Meyer.

The young defender took a shot at the right side of the goal, but Meyer had it tracked the whole time. Hansen's face sunk into her hands as Meyer celebrated the save, and Stanford won the game on its next kick.

“One of the worst things is managing the absolute destroyed spirit of a kid who missed a penalty kick,” UNC women's soccer head coach Anson Dorrance said. "Tori felt entirely responsible for the fact that we weren't national champions in her freshman year.” 

Hansen corroborated her coach's recollection.

"That's not something I'm ever going to forget about," Hansen said. "But I think I've grown from it.”

That growth has materialized into a breakout senior season for Hansen, who was named First-Team All-ACC in 2022 after commanding UNC's injury-riddled back line to the best statistical defense in the conference. Hansen leads the Tar Heels in minutes played and is one of the team's top goal-scorers, something that's unique for a center back. 

Hansen's talent has never been in question. She's made plenty of appearances on youth national teams, and Dorrance called her one of the best players in the country in the air following her success on set pieces. However, when she first arrived to Chapel Hill, she joined a UNC roster that already boasted some of the best defenders in the country, including All-American Maycee Bell.

In her first three seasons, Hansen was shoehorned into a reserve role as a central defensive midfielder, a position she didn't consider a natural fit.

“At the six, there's a lot of spinning and turning, and you don't really always know what's behind you,” Hansen said.

Hansen said she prefers to play back and see the entire pitch. From there, she can study the opposing attack and direct the defense accordingly. It plays into an intangible skill that she's exceptionally good at — communication.

"I like having the responsibility and being able to see everything on the field,” Hansen said. “I like being able to help my teammates and communicating to them.”

Hansen played so well in the offseason this past spring that she earned herself a starting spot on UNC's back line to start the 2022 season. To Hansen's relief, she returned to the center back position and thrived.

In the season opener against Tennessee, Hansen scored an impressive goal that instantly put her on the radar of college soccer fans. Junior midfielder Sam Meza lofted up a pass from the right wing, and Hansen, posted in front of the goal, rose up over her defender to head the ball into the back of the net. After that play, Hansen said it finally felt like she had solidified herself into the starting lineup.

Shortly after that game, Bell announced she would miss the remainder of the season. First-year Kayleigh Herr, the replacement for the superstar defender, suffered a season-ending knee injury of her own just a few weeks later against UCLA.

Quickly, Hansen found herself at the helm of a back line that was hastily pieced together with non-defenders. Eight different players have started on the back line at some point this season, several of whom are listed on the roster as forwards. But despite the injury turnover, the group has allowed an average of .57 goals per game and has tallied 14 shutouts this season.

Starting left back Tessa Dellarose, a first-year full back who had played forward for most of her soccer career, said that Hansen keeps the back line tight with her communicative ability.

“I'm able to do what I do and play my game so well, because I know she's back behind me,” Dellarose said. “And she's just been a very big leader, vocally.”

On the other side of the field, Hansen has continued to find ways to score. Some of her goals have come off set pieces, but most have come by way of the penalty kick.

“I can't say that I enjoy PK’s, but right after the fact, once it's already in the goal, it's nice,” Hansen said with a laugh after a team practice in October. “But when I'm walking out there I’m like, 'Oh, God, oh God.’”

In a Sept. 25 game against Boston College, a handball called inside the 18-yard box gave UNC a penalty kick opportunity. Immediately, Hansen picked up the ball, placed it on the spot and lifted it into the left side of the goal. It was her first attempt since the 2019 championship game against Stanford.

Dorrance said he never designated Hansen as the team's penalty kick specialist — she put that responsibility on herself. The cathartic undertaking has clearly paid off, as Hansen is five-for-five on PK attempts this season.

“Ever since (the penalty kick against Boston College), she's taken every one of our penalty kicks,” Dorrance said. “I think a part of that was getting rid of those demons from her freshman year.”

@LucasThomae

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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