CARY — Dominance doesn’t even begin to describe the success the North Carolina women’s soccer team achieved since the sport was officially recognized by the NCAA in 1982.
In the first 32 years that a national championship was awarded, the Tar Heels won it 21 times.
There was a time in which those titles came so frequently for coach Anson Dorrance and players that anything less would be considered a failure.
Dorrance acknowledged as much Sunday after UNC dropped a 1-0 decision to ACC rival Florida State in the NCAA College Cup final at WakeMed Soccer Park.
“I really feel like this has been a tremendous season,” Dorrance said after the hard-fought match in which the Seminoles scored the decisive goal midway through the second half. “Even by our standards.”
It’s not that that UNC’s program has dropped off dramatically or that expectations have been lowered since its most recent title in 2012. Rather, it’s that the depth of talent and quality of competition have improved so much in recent years as the popularity of the women’s game continues to grow.
Winning the championship has become a lot harder than it once was.
That doesn’t lessen the Tar Heels’ desire or the pressure they feel to bring the trophy back to Chapel Hill.
“We’re so grateful for the path that they’ve created for us, the legacy they’ve left and that we have the ability to be a part of it,” sophomore midfielder Taylor Otto said of a UNC bloodline that includes the likes of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, April Heinrichs and Carla Overbeck. “But since it’s been a few years since we’ve been on top, we’ve been trying to pave our own path for Carolina and make sure we carry that legacy on. I think that’s really important to us.”
That “want to,” as UNC basketball coach Roy Williams likes to describe it, was vividly illustrated by the actions of senior leader Julia Ashley just before the start of the second overtime in Friday’s national semifinal matchup against unbeaten Georgetown.
With the Tar Heels facing the potential of a hit-or-miss penalty kick shootout despite having dominated play throughout the second half, Ashley told her teammates that “someone’s going to finish this off for us in the next 10 minutes.”
As it turned it, she was the one that came through with the winning goal, completing a heroic run down the middle of the field with a picture-perfect give-and-go with teammate Rachael Dorwart to give UNC a 1-0 victory and a spot in Sunday’s final.
The Tar Heels were just as determined against Florida State. But a combination of their own tired legs and the Seminoles’ ability to play keep-away with the ball after taking the lead on a sliding redirect by Dallas Dorosy in the 60th minute prevented them from fashioning another happy ending.
“We’re pretty much devastated right now,” Ashley said Sunday. “Going into today we really thought it was our day. We thought that the entire game, right up until the last 10 seconds.”
It was the second one-goal loss to FSU in a month for UNC, which lost 3-2 in the ACC Tournament final at the same WakeMed Soccer Park complex.
“They’re a great team and they have a lot of great players, as we do,” Otto said. “Against a team like that, it’s just whoever can grind out a goal and whoever can get it done. Unfortunately, the last two times we played them, we weren’t able to do it.”
With Otto and fellow All-ACC underclassmen Brianna Pinto, Emily Fox and Alessia Russo returning and another star-studded recruiting class set to arrive, the Tar Heels figure to have another realistic shot at ending their championship “drought” again next year.
But while that’s always the goal for a program that remains the gold standard of women’s college soccer, Dorrance said he’ll be happy and satisfied if it’s able to match the most important accomplishment of his 2018 national runner-up.
“When you look at your team, from a coach’s perspective, the thing you’re always interested in is evolution, getting better,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “We got so much better from the first game of the season to where we are now.
“That’s as much as we can ask. I’m proud of my kids because they really did leave it all out there.”