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The Daily Tar Heel

Fall sports preview: Three teams, three players to keep an eye on

20230415 - UNC 2023 SPRING FOOTBALL GAME
UNC redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye (10) runs with the ball during the 2023 Spring Football Game at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, April 15, 2023.

Athletics are an important aspect of the North Carolina experience, and fall sports are just the place to start. 

Football, field hockey and women’s soccer all aim to keep heads turned their way during the fall season. Each having standout fall seasons last year, expectations are high heading into the 2023-24 school year.

Here’s who and what you need to know about each team as the upcoming season looms.

Football

Led by star redshirt sophomore quarterback Drake Maye, the North Carolina football team is eying another run to the ACC Championship game. Last year, the Tar Heels won the ACC Coastal division title and faced the Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship. However, the Tar Heels proved no match for the Tigers, losing 39-10.

Following the loss in the ACC Championship, the Tar Heels lost to No. 15 Oregon, 28-27, in the Holiday Bowl. Furthermore, offensive coordinator Phil Longo left for the Wisconsin Badgers, and head coach Mack Brown brought in Chip Lindsey from the UCF Golden Knights to fill the void left by Longo. 

Lindsey has emphasized a focus on the run game. According to Brown, Lindsey wore a "run the damn ball" hat in his interview for the offensive coordinator position. Brown liked this approach and is focused on improving a lackluster run game headed into the fall season.

The new wide receiver duo of transfers Nate McCollum and Devontez Walker is one to watch out for. After losing both star receivers Antoine Green and Josh Downs, the new transfers will be key in helping UNC maintain its high-powered offense — and weapons Maye will look to utilize.

Drake Maye

Last season, Maye was a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the best quarterbacks in college football. After filling the void left by Sam Howell — who now plays for the Washington Commanders in the NFL — Maye seamlessly slotted into the UNC offense. Maye threw for 4,321 yards, 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

Heading into next season, look for Maye — who is projected as one of the top prospects in the 2024 NFL Draft — to lead the UNC offense and head another Heisman campaign early on in the season. Maye is crucial to the Tar Heels offense, and a name that will continue to be echoed across campus.

Field Hockey

National champions. Head coach Karen Shelton. Those two go hand-in-hand. However, heading into next year, Shelton won't be on the sidelines. She retired after the 2022 national championship run — marking her 10th national title, the most in NCAA history — and left former star player Erin Matson to take the reins.

Matson is considered to be one of, if not the, single greatest field hockey player of all time. During her playing career at UNC, Matson amassed four NCAA national titles, five ACC titles and is the current all-time scoring leader in both the ACC and NCAA Tournament. Just one year removed from her last national championship as a player, Matson will look to continue the Tar Heel legacy at just 23 years old. 

On the field, Matson has a strong supporting cast behind her heading into her first year as head coach. Key players returning from the national championship team include sophomore midfielders and forwards Ashley Sessa and Ryleigh Heck. Watch for Matson to utilize the tandem in an effort to defend their national title.

Ashley Sessa

In her first season in Chapel Hill, Sessa started all 21 games, scoring nine goals and adding five assists. Sessa made noise in her first college game ever in which she scored three goals against Michigan. She was named to the second All-ACC team following her first year with the Tar Heels, as well as to the All-South Region team. 

With Matson — who was the main scoring threat last season — on the coach's bench, look for Sessa to step in and fill that role. Sessa’s ability to influence the game and create scoring chances will be vital for Matson’s Tar Heels in the upcoming season. 

Women’s soccer

Led by legendary head coach Anson Dorrance, who is heading into his 47th season in the position, the women’s soccer team is eyeing another run at a national championship. Last fall, the Tar Heels fell just short of their 23rd national title after a 3-2 overtime loss to No. 1 UCLA. UNC was up 2-0 with 10 minutes to play, but UCLA came storming back to send the game to overtime, when they added another goal to secure the win.

However, UNC is returning key players in senior forward Sam Meza, senior defender, midfielder and forward Avery Patterson and redshirt sophomore forward Ally Sentnor. Each played vital roles in carrying UNC to the title game last year, scoring a combined 25 goals.

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A well-balanced offense, as well as a strong back line — which gave up just 20 goals all season — is something to watch out for as the Tar Heels continue to be one of the teams to beat in the ACC.

Avery Patterson

Patterson can play anywhere on the field and impact the game significantly. In the national championship game, Patterson scored both Tar Heel goals, helping them jump out to a 2-0 lead. For the United States under-20 national team in 2022, Patterson scored four goals in a game against Puerto Rico in just the first half. 

Last year for the Tar Heels, Patterson started in all 26 games for the Tar Heels, adding 13 goals and eight assists. Watch for Dorrance to utilize Patterson on different areas of the pitch and for her to be a key piece for this Carolina team. 

@mdmaynard74

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com