Note: This story originally appeared in the September 2 issue of CAROLINA.
By Turner Walston
A year after fielding a team featuring six senior starters –all of whom are now playing at the professional level– Anson Dorrance is relying on two seniors, Satara Murray and Brooke Elby, to anchor the back line in 2014.
It’s natural for a young team to go through some early-season growing pains –after an overtime loss to #6 Stanford, the Tar Heels earned a 1-0 win over Ohio State in the Carolina Nike Classic, then hit the road to force a tie at #1 UCLA before a 1-0 loss to #17 Pepperdine– but with Murray and Elby on the field, the Tar Heels are confident that they’ll find the winning formula.
A three-year starter, Murray brings big-game experience and a ton of talent to the Tar Heel back line. The Austin, Texas native is a blur with the ball, bursting down the sideline to help spur the attack. But she’s not all sizzle and no steak; Murray has the closing speed and defensive instincts to quickly dispossess an opposing forward and take the action the other way. “I look at the eyes, and sometimes they make it really obvious about what they’re going to do,” she said. “It’s about really reading what the player with the ball is doing, and actually reading it before the ball actually comes to the player I’m defending.”
Murray was right there on the field with those talented seniors from a year ago, so she has high expectations for the players beside her. This year, she’s enjoyed being the kind of leader that others modeled for her. “It’s basically to lead by example, verbally and by what I do with my presence,” she said of her role, “kind of give the rest of the team an idea, that this is what’s supposed to happen.”
Sometimes that means taking the ball and starting the attack herself. “Is there a more exciting outside back to watch in collegiate soccer than Satara?” Dorrance said after a recent game. “When she starts churning down that right side, all the fans are on the edge of their seats, as well as the whole coaching staff. She’s just an incredibly exciting player.”
“When I feel like there is not much going up, if I see my front line is tired, I’ll take the responsibility,” Murray said. “If there’s empty space in front of me, I’m going to go.”
On the other side is Brooke Elby, a senior who had nine starts in 63 games entering this season, but is now a veteran presence on a young team. “It’s actually very exciting,” she said. “You never think you’re going to get to his point when you're a freshman and you walk on the field. You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and you look up to the seniors. And now that I’m one of them it’s fun.” Elby has the vision and savvy to get the ball forward and even put shots on the frame. When the Tar Heels are in the team’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Murray and Elby bookend the back line. In the first four games of the season, she started at holding center midfielder, a position manned the past two years by veterans Kelly McFarlane and Amber Brooks.
“What actually helps us a lot is that the oldest part of our team is our back line and that’s where all the talking and the decisions happen, and we get to see the whole field so I think that’s really encouraging,” Elby said.
Every season brings a new team dynamic, a new team chemistry, and the formula might not be perfected by the season’s open. But history has shown that Carolina women’s soccer more often than not finds ways to win when it counts.
“We’re such a young team,” Elby said. “I think we’re still getting comfortable with each other, and that’s what preseason’s all about. These tournaments are not going to affect us when it comes to NCAA tournament time, but they’re great platforms for us to gain momentum and learn how each other play. I think that’s why it’s a perfect environment, and we’ve already started to see where we can connect, where we can play, and what parts of the field we can impact.”
The team is back to work this weekend with games in Durham against Penn State and Arkansas on Friday and Sunday, respectively.