By Dave Lohse
Associate Athletic Communications Director
Winning championships at every level is at the core of the fabric of the Carolina women's soccer program. Let's check the bucket list. Twenty-two national championships since 1981. Twenty ACC regular-season championships since 1987. Twenty ACC Tournament championships since 1988. The numbers are staggering indeed. It's hard to imagine any team being able to dominate a sport the way Carolina has in women's soccer.
But as the 2013 season is at hand, there remains one nagging, yet unfair question that might have haunted the Tar Heels as they prepare to open the campaign against Santa Clara August 23.
Were it not for a remarkable post-season run that turned the 2012 season from rags to riches and resulted in the 22nd national championship in school history, the question might be, "Hey, what's wrong with North Carolina?"
Of course that question is absurd on its face but for a program with the expectations that Carolina women's soccer carries with it the fact remains that had the Tar Heels not won the title a year ago, it would have marked the first time in history UNC had gone three straight seasons without earning the title.
That question is no longer the elephant in the room because through a succession of heart-stopping finishes the Heels were the Cinderella champions of 2012, a role they rarely ever have the opportunity to embrace.
The heroic moments of 2012 have been well chronicled. Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament coming off an ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Virginia in a game where the Tar Heels did not take a shot on goal, the first time that had happened in school history.
After that loss, coach Anson Dorrance had 13 days to retool his team and over the final four weekends of the season the Tar Heels went on their own version of a magical mystery tour, ending the trip with a complete performance in the national championship game against Penn State, a 4-1 win highlighted by a dominant 3-0 margin in the second half. Along the way, UNC had to eliminate a trio of No. 1 seeds. It had to become the first champion to prevail three times in overtime. It had to win a penalty kick shootout for only the second time in UNC lore. And it had to rely on the never-say-die hustle of reserve Brooke Elby to make a near impossible defensive save against BYU, allowing the Heels to advance to the College Cup when Crystal Dunn scored the winner in the succeeding overtime period.
Dorrance and his team now sit on the threshold of the 2013 campaign and an almost certain-to-be preseason No. 1 ranking. The Tar Heels certainly have the makings of another national championship team. Twenty-one of 32 letter winners return from 2012 and eight of 11 starters are back. The key questions going into the season will be who will replace Amber Brooks, the four-year starter at playmaking center midfield, and Adelaide Gay, the two-year starter at goalkeeper.
But the core that returns excites Dorrance and the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class according to Top Drawer Soccer Magazine adds to the depth and talent the Heels can call upon. Dorrance has indicated that he has the makings of a team where he can play 19 or more players a game. That gives the Heels the chance to play the game the way it's meant to be played - with a mentality of 90 minutes of attacking and exciting soccer. Substitution patterns should allow Carolina to play the high-pressure style it thrives in.
Let's briefly review the Tar Heel personnel. Back up top are the team's two leading scorers a year ago - senior Kealia Ohai (most valuable player of the NCAA College Cup) and sophomore Summer Green (U20 National Team) with 23 and 22 points, respectively. The midfield is headed up by 2012 consensus national player of the year Crystal Dunn at the attacking center midfield spot. Dunn won the Hermann Trophy, the first Tar Heel to do so in nine years, and went on to start on defense for the U.S. National team in the spring. On the midfield wings are four-year starter Meg Morris on the left side and sophomore New Zealand international Katie Bowen on the right side.
The entire defensive flat back three returns in the persons of sophomore Hanna Gardner (U20 National Team), junior Caitlin Ball (2012 Elite 89 Award recipient) and junior Satara Murray (2012 NCAA College Cup defensive MVP). Murray and Gardner ranked 1 and 2 on the team in minutes played last year. Also back is senior Megan Brigman, a defensive starter in 2010 and 2011, who broke a leg four minutes into the 2012 campaign and was red-shirted.
The goalkeeping position will be fought over by a deep group that includes senior Anna Sieloff, a former starter in her own right, sophomore Bryane Heaberlin (2012 U20 world champion starting goalkeeper) and redshirt freshman Lindsey Harris.
Carolina also returns players with starting experience like senior midfielder Kelly McFarlane, junior all-everything Brooke Elby, sophomore forward Paige Nielsen, sophomore midfielder Kat Nigro and sophomore forward/midfielder Reilly Parker.
The 13-member recruiting class includes 12 freshmen and Georgia transfer Alexa Newfield, an All-SEC choice with the Bulldogs in 2010 and 2011 before she red-shirted last year. Dorrance has praised the freshman class as a unique blend of depth, quality, talent and athleticism. It is a class with several players who will help right away while also paving the way for the post-Dunn, Ohai and Morris era that begins in a year.
In the meantime, UNC seeks to begin another championship journey in 2013. It may not take the same path of the cardiac kids of 2012. Chemistry is a hard thing to predict. But the potential to add to the Carolina bucket list is certainly there.