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First-years shine in UNC women's soccer's 3-1 home opener victory over California

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UNC first-year defender Savy King (3) vies for possession during the game against California at Dorrance Field on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. UNC beat California 3-1.

The first day of class had not even happened yet, and the first-year North Carolina women’s soccer players were already receiving high marks from their 'professor,' head coach Anson Dorrance.

Following a 3-1 win over California on Sunday in the season’s home opener, Dorrance praised the top-ranked 2023 recruiting class, four of whom logged significant minutes in the Tar Heels' first win of the year.

“I think they all contributed in a very positive way," Dorrance said. "That freshman class is showing up already.”

Among the standouts from that class is defender Savy King. Dorrance called her performance in the 0-0 season-opening draw against Penn State “the best first-game performance by a freshman in the history of our program.”

For a program that has seen the likes of Mia Hamm, Heather O’Reilly and Crystal Dunn, it's high praise to put upon a player.

“That was crazy. I was speechless when I saw [what Dorrance said],” King said. “That’s why I came here. I wanted to grow both as a person and as a player and I think that the environment that I’m in and the people I’m playing with are just absolutely amazing.”

How’d she follow it up?

By shutting down Cal's wings and stopping the Golden Bears from getting nearly any transition opportunities.

“I thought we had a great game,” King said. “Coming out of Penn State, we wanted to win today and I think that we did a great job at executing everything we wanted to.”

The Tar Heels also have three first-year offensive threats on the other side of the pitch in players Mia Oliaro, Melina Rebimbas and Olivia Thomas that helped break the game open.

With the game tied at 1-1 for much of the first half, Oliaro and Rebimbas helped UNC take the lead in the 41st minute.

Streaking down the left side of the field, Oliaro passed the ball inside the box. Bouncing past multiple players, the ball found itself on Rebimbas' left foot. The New Jersey native buried the shot into the right corner for the first goal of her collegiate career.

As productive as Oliaro and Rebimbas were on Sunday, it was Thomas who had the attention of the California defense all game.

Earlier this month, Thomas set a program record in the 30-yard dash during preseason training. Looking to exploit that speed against the Golden Bears, Thomas ran all over Dorrance Field on Sunday afternoon.

At first, she struggled to maintain possession. The Golden Bears' backline had no trouble containing the No. 12 ranked recruit, letting UNC's early scoring opportunities go by the wayside.

At halftime, Dorrance challenged Thomas to adapt, and just over a minute into the second half, she scored her first goal in Carolina Blue, assisted by redshirt sophomore midfielder Ally Sentnor.

“I was ecstatic," Thomas said. “I was excited to score my first goal. The pass was amazing from [Sentnor], and it just set me up in the best position.”

Sentnor and Thomas were able to connect throughout the game due to the technical play and quickness that the duo shares. As Thomas improves, expect the tandem to continue picking apart opposing defenses.

“I think we can do a lot of amazing things,” Thomas said. “Sentnor’s amazing on the ball, she’s an amazing passer so I think our combination play will be a big difference and will help going forward.”

Even if it was the top-ranked first-year class that helped them win on Sunday, North Carolina still has more weapons in its arsenal.

Sentnor, redshirt senior defender Maycee Bell and senior midfielder Sam Meza made the preseason All-ACC team. Additionally, UNC’s leading goal scorer from last year — senior forward Avery Patterson — has returned to the team.

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Walking off the field, Dorrance left with one simple message for the crowd:

“This team is going to be fun to watch. Get ready.”

@thenoahmonroe

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com