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.