NCAA Tournament – North Carolina Reigns Again: The Team Is The Thing

In a total team performance for the ages, it was perhaps apropos that the game winning goal that sent the national title back to Chapel Hill came off the head of Hanna Gardner, as good a representative as any of the Tar Heels’ magical season. A walk-on from the Chapel Hill area, just three and a half months earlier, Gardner had found herself following the opening game, in Portland, of UNC’s amazing odyssey back in Chapel Hill having not made the club’s travel roster. Months later, it seems unfathomable, as the rookie stepped into the shows of injured senior Megan Brigman after that game and has scarcely looked back. She headed in the eventual winner early in the second half here while playing a pivotal role on the third goal that all but killed the game off.

And she was just one of many unsung heroines who now have etched their name in the same lineage as the North Carolina greats, in the same vein of names like Hamm, Parlow, and O’Reilly. They left their legacy indelibly as a continuation of the greatest legacy in college athletics, of a legacy that will almost assuredly never be bettered or approached.

There is Summer Green, out of high school a year early and as mature on the pitch as many a fifth-year senior. A player who led the line in the 4-2-3-1 confidently early in the season when some wondered if the goals would ever come.

There is Bryane Heaberlin, the freshman who won a youth world title only to be relegated to bench not soon after returning to Chapel Hill. There is the unmistakable courage and nerve she showed to step in and take responsibility in the shootout against Baylor to end years of shootout woe.

There is Caitlin Ball, a sophomore who logic dictates shouldn’t be a center-back for a national title winning team at just 5’5″. Logic be damned the past two seasons, where she’s gone from unheralded walk-on to invaluable defender for this North Carolina side.

There is Maria Lubrano, who missed two full seasons with injuries, the second due to a debilitating hip injury that required two surgeries and had some questioning if she’d ever play for the Tar Heels again. She played in every game and tied for second on the team with seven goals as a senior this year.

There is Brooke Elby, whose breathtaking run to the endline and blocked shot in Provo, Utah when all looked lost against BYU in extra time saved the season and extended the careers of North Carolina’s seniors. It’s an individual effort that will likely go down as one of the best single plays in the history of the club.

There is all 5’6″ of starting goalkeeper Adelaide Gay, who proved size isn’t everything this title winning season. Gay began her career as a reserve at Yale, then became a walk-on at North Carolina. She earned the starting job in 2011. She finished her career a national champion.

There is Amber Brooks, who entered Chapel Hill with a CV from her youth soccer days almost as long as the winning legacy at North Carolina. There is the player who as one of the club’s figureheads, had to deal with the Sisyphean weight of UNC’s early exits in the past two NCAA Tournaments. She leaves with two national titles and personal honors rivaling many of her peers at Carolina over the past decade.

There is Kealia Ohai, at one-time the nation’s most coveted youth prospect whose star shone so brightly as a rookie, only to dim in the face of raised expectations as a sophomore. There is the tale of a player who came of age in 2012, who reminded all of her talent and her desire as she helped lead her country and her club to glory.

There is Crystal Dunn, a player of breathtaking talent and infinite potential who has done the #19 proud, no mean feat considering the player who donned it most famously. There is the fearless and brilliant resolve of a player capable of dominating the game from any position on the pitch. There is the player who will undoubtedly go down as one of the best of the very best in Chapel Hill.

There is the mastermind, Anson Dorrance. A man whose decisions had been increasingly doubted, prodded, and second guessed by a hungry fanbase who had become borderline mutinous after two humbling NCAA Tournament defeats in 2010 and 2011. There is the man whose faith in his way, in the way of the program, in the way of the team never wavered. There is another triumph in a long and gloried list of them.

There are more heroines, too many more to do proper justice to in such a short screed. They are the ones who overcame as much adversity as faced by a team in successful pursuit of a College Cup in recent memory. This was a team who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn against Portland and who didn’t give themselves the chance to do so against Florida. This was a team that won just one of its first four games in league play. They were a team who went out meekly in the opening round of the ACC Tournament despite home advantage.

This is a team that was less than nine minutes away from defeat against Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. They found a way.

This is a team that looked to be doomed on a counter attack from BYU in extra time in the lung punishing air of Provo in the Elite Eight and then again on the corner kick that followed. They found a way.

This is a team that saw its path to the national title blocked by the Stanford team that stormed to the title last season and that was desperate to knock off North Carolina for the first time in program history. The Tar Heels found a way.

These Tar Heels found themselves even 1-1 at the half against a Penn State team that had, in Anson Dorrance’s words, made their defense look like “Swiss cheese”. This North Carolina team faced an opponent with a striker with feet like quicksilver and an attacking midfielder that put the ball on a dime for the equalizer.

North Carolina found a way. The Tar Heels found a way to the familiarity of the apex of the college soccer world. They found it in a familiar way, the same familiar way that has fueled a dynasty. Together.

7 thoughts on “NCAA Tournament – North Carolina Reigns Again: The Team Is The Thing

  1. gogogo

    UNC is a great team that won a very challenging tournament. But “[t]hey are the ones who overcame as much adversity as faced by a team in successful pursuit of a College Cup in recent memory” ? Hard to say about a #2 seed – as recently as 2010 a #4 seed won. But thanks for a very evocative writeup about a special title for an amazing side.

  2. VaFan

    Yesterday’s match, even if a bit one-sided in the second half, was the kind of showcase women’s college soccer deserves. And it was on at a time and on a medium nearly everyone in the U.S. could watch. (Does really count as coverage?)
    I am beginning to despair a bit at the ongoing lack of respect given college soccer on national TV, although I probably should not be surprised at this point. I think a major factor in building fans is giving them information on teams and individual players in detail and the coverage of college soccer just does not provide that. As much as I enjoyed the commentary on the championship weekend, if I hear the phrase “overcame adversity” one more time….
    There were lots of interesting back-stories for yesterday’s final — the struggles of U20 players from lots of programs when returning to college and WHY (it’s almost scary), how Summer Green and Lindsay Horan got to and/or left UNC, an ACC that gave UNC 4 losses, will first-years Mallory Weber and Summer Green be the next big thing in college soccer, why is Christine Nairn not on a national team, etc. — some of which were mentioned. But there are those sorts of stories for all top-line games and U.S. television is just not covering women’s college soccer at all. Fox Soccer manages to squeeze in a mediocre match-up once or twice a month and that’s about it. Meanwhile, there are multiple hugely-interesting matches every week and national media takes almost no notice.
    An interesting project would be to count how many times top-ten women’s college teams were on national TV this year.
    My point is that you cannot really build a national soccer fan-base among younger folks unless you give the sport and its players some national coverage. Most teenage players know very well who Hope Solo is, but could not name more than one or two players from UNC, Stanford, Penn State, etc. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a college soccer TV network?
    Meanwhile, the most and most intelligent coverage is provided by AWK (bless you) and a few other niche sites.
    My final word in this grouse is probably preaching to the choir here: Take your friends, children, colleages, whoever to any decent college soccer game you can get to. The game is SO much better in-person than televised.

    1. Pali fan

      I agree–the lack of coverage of this NCAA tournament was ridiculous. If not for BYUTV, I would have missed out on an incredibly exciting and well played match. I think we need a channel devoted to all women’s sports. They could easily fill up programming with NCAA soccer, basketball, volleyball, softball etc., WNBA games, the new pro soccer league games. I would love to watch a women’s pro football or softball game. They could do pieces on individual teams and players when there are no games going on. Even a series following a team like UNC or Penn State during their season. I’ll keep dreaming, because it probably won’t happen.

  3. John

    Since so many walk ons were pivotal to UNC’s title maybe Dorrance should just quit recruiting and let the players who know they belong there just show up. New cycle means new chance f/ Nairn and others. After US Soccer gets done wasting 10 games that could have been fostering new talent, checking on players like Kreiger, etc. we’ll hopefully see the future. The Algarve can’t get here soon enough.

    1. kernel thai

      The fan tour is part of the player contracts and restricted to members of the Olympic roster. If ur wondering why so few young players got a look, ask Pia. If ur still complaining about that under Sermanni, Ill be stunned.

  4. mmbop

    The “future” of women’s college soccer is being written in the conference shake-ups that are driven almost entirely by football. The loss of Maryland and addition of Louisville to the ACC is basically a wash – but the deeper issues of travel and the real possibility that teams like UNC, FSU and Virginia could all end up in different leagues come 2014 are game changers. I am an ardent believer that the awful coverage provided to the NCAA Tourney (in its entirety) is embarassing, but not surprising when you realize that ALL the NCAA cares about are football and basketball and the attention paid by ESPN is proof positive of that. As I have pointed out before, the World Wide Leader prefers to air re-runs of the World Series of Poker on ESPN2 (reaches approximately 98M homes) and relegate the National Title Game to ESPNU ( seen in about 75M homes).

    But the possibility of greater conference shake-ups and the possibility that UNC will be playing the likes of Iowa, Northwestern, Nebreska and Minnesota each and every year (instead of Duke, Wake and BC) will not make recruiting any easier. The ACC is undoubtebly the Biggest of the Big Dogs on the Womens Soccer block, but the league is poised to change and by all accounts if the B1G knocks, the Tar Heels will answer – and not ask Dorrance what he thinks!!

  5. Wow

    No doubt ACC soccer is better than Big Ten soccer but at least UNC could play Maryland which has beaten them in the last three meetings.


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