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The Daily Tar Heel

2023 Year in Review: A 23rd national championship remains elusive for UNC women's soccer

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The UNC Women’s Soccer team starters huddle before the game starts against the Duke Blue Devils at Koskinen Stadium, Durham, NC, on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023.

Sixteen seconds. That’s all that stood between the UNC women’s soccer team and a 23rd national championship just over a year ago against UCLA. With a 2-0 lead in the 75th minute, the Tar Heels essentially had one hand on the trophy. Then, they saw it ripped away.

“Just to be able to taste that national championship with 16 seconds left — it’s going to be something that is hard to come back from,” now senior forward Avery Patterson said after the 3-2 extra-time loss to UCLA.

Sixteen seconds to glory. So close, yet so far. Looking to turn the page, the team instituted the mantra 23 in ‘23 for this year’s campaign. 

“Obviously, a national championship is the goal,” redshirt senior defender Maycee Bell said prior to the season.

But yet again, the Tar Heels’ hearts were shattered.

North Carolina’s 2023 season was ended just short of a 32nd College Cup appearance by No. 1 seed BYU in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. The Tar Heels finished with a 13-2-8 record and were fourth best in the ACC at 5-0-5. A periodic inability to convert chances and see out games accounted for a program-record eight draws. Head coach Anson Dorrance has 22 national titles to his name in 45 seasons, but has now gone 11 years without one. 

The Tar Heels started the season strong, enduring a non-conference gauntlet with a 3-0-2 record against ranked teams and winning their first two ACC matches.

The biggest match of the regular season came on Sept. 24 when No. 3 Florida State came to Dorrance Field. In an eerily similar fashion to the 2022 national championship game, UNC couldn’t hold on to a late lead, as the Seminoles scored a 90th-minute equalizer.

The team bounced back with two consecutive wins including a 4-0 drubbing of N.C. State, but Oct. 8 was Groundhog Day. The Tar Heels led 1-0 at Duke in the 88th minute. They did not win.

“[The Florida State game,] the NCAA championship game last year — we can sort of add all those different things up,” Dorrance said after the Duke match. “This is becoming a theme that we don’t want to keep repeating.”

Despite playing three more frustrating 1-1 draws in the last four games of the regular season, the Tar Heels still hadn’t lost. That loss finally came in the first round of the ACC tournament.

Redshirt sophomore forward Ally Sentnor equalized for UNC in the 76th minute against Pittsburgh, but, despite having several good chances, North Carolina couldn’t find a second goal and lost 2-1 in extra time.

“We’re very concerned,” Dorrance said after the loss. “We’ve gotta do a better job finishing the chances we create.”

Dorrance and company regrouped and played their best soccer at the right time. Team points leader and ACC Midfielder of the Year, Sentnor led the Tar Heels past its first three opponents in the NCAA tournament with four goal contributions.

“She’s just a rockstar,” Bell said of Sentnor after a first round win over Towson. “Every time she gets the ball, there’s an opportunity to score.” 

The defense Bell anchored was outstanding as well, not allowing a single shot in five of the six halves.

But then came a snowy night in Provo, Utah. Bell scores. 1-0. Two minutes in. Sentnor. 2-0. And then Sentnor again. 3-0. 20th minute. One hour gone. Still 3-0.

And then, 4-3 BYU. Full time.

Cougars fans stormed the field and many Tar Heels fell to the frigid turf in tears.

“There's nothing you can really say to assuage [the players'] pain,” Dorrance said after the 2022 championship game. “But, you know, this is what I guess the best parts of athletics are all about. I mean, you really get to feel life in moments like that.”

Pain persists. And the quest for number 23 continues.

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com