CARY, N.C. – Perched in his familiar stance on the North Carolina sideline, Anson Dorrance wasn't worried – even if he had every right to be.
In a year marked by season-ending injuries and second half collapses, the Tar Heels seemed primed to add another chapter to the saga in their College Cup semifinal clash against Florida State on Friday night.
After senior defender Julia Dorsey netted her first goal of the year to give UNC a 3-0 lead, the Seminoles’ desperation and pedigree as reigning national champions sparked life into their urgent attack as the team scored two quick headers to steepen the drama.
Yet, when the Tar Heels held onto a 3-2 win to clinch their first national title appearance since 2019, the 44-season coaching veteran couldn’t help but grin at the display of resiliency that mirrored the team’s mindset all season.
“For a team like ours that doesn’t have the experience of a Florida State or the overwhelming talent when we lost two of the best players in the country, what makes up for it is the fact that these kids are just killing themselves for each other,” Dorrance said. “We were hanging on by a thread for a while in the second half and then we were able to coalesce and find a way to push forward.”
Coupled to the long list of adversity was facing the gaudy Florida State team that returned to WakeMed Soccer Park weeks after dominating UNC on the same field in the ACC Championship final. In the previous contest, the Tar Heels were held without a corner attempt for the first time all season as the Seminoles claimed the conference title.
Although Florida State seemed to control most of the match on Friday – holding a 25-14 shot advantage and boasting a 13-3 corner differential – the Tar Heels converted on timely scoring chances by displaying an aggressive offense that often featured as many as eight attackers in the top half of the field.
“We can play,” Dorsey said. “We don’t need to kick the ball out and defend, we can play with them and generate more possession, and it was more a message of not being scared of them.”
With just over three minutes to play in the first half, newly inserted substitute Aleigh Gambone found herself in the middle of the attacking area. After first-year forward Maddie Dahlien’s cross was errantly knocked away by FSU’s Heather Payne, the senior midfielder launched a rebound shot past the keeper to give the team much-needed momentum.
As one of the team’s longest-tenured players, Gambone is one of the few Tar Heels that has participated in the College Cup. Despite having a more limited role in her senior year, she has quickly become a central cog in UNC’s revamped 3-5-2 formation.
“Every time when we invest in her, she pays us back and today was an absolutely fabulous example,” Dorrance said.
Although Florida State head coach Brian Pensky admitted that he believed his team was in a good position with a slim 1-0 deficit heading into the break, the Tar Heels struck quickly in the second period with a penalty kick from senior defender Tori Hansen minutes before a well-placed free kick from senior forward Emily Moxley paved the way for Dorsey’s header.
While UNC’s win looked to be secured, the Seminoles immediately fired back.
Seconds after the Dorsey goal, Florida State responded with a cross that was headed home by Onyi Echegini. After threatening on several additional occasions, the Seminoles added another goal to trim the deficit to just under 15 minutes remaining.
But as the clock slowly ticked away and shots continuously hurled into the direction of redshirt first-year goalkeeper Emmie Allen and the Tar Heels’ back line, the team knew it had the mental fortitude to get over the top.
“As a goalkeeper it was very nerve-wracking. But, at the same time, it’s part of the position,” Allen said. “You’re not always going to save every shot and both of their goals were good goals, in my opinion, but we came together in the last 15 minutes and got the job done.”
With a chance to clinch the program’s first national title in 10 years, the Tar Heels know they still have one more obstacle of adversity to climb.
But before UNC faces UCLA – a team that handed the Tar Heels their first home loss of the season in early September – Dorrance took the time to offer a realization that attests to North Carolina’s stunning climb to the mountaintop.
“We’re playing with house money,” Dorrance said. “We lost two of the best players in the country and we’re in the national championship final. Are you kidding me?”
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