UNC women feel at home in College Cup

Looking for their first title since 2012, the Tar Heels get a local advantage with the championship in Cary

Senior defender Julia Ashley, shown here in a game earlier this season, scored the winning goal for the Tar Heels on Friday (Jeffery Camarati / UNC Athletics)

Georgetown might be undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the nation, but it’s No. 3 North Carolina that will have the home-field advantage when the teams meet Friday in the women’s soccer national semifinals at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Complex.

That’s not a coincidence, according to the Tar Heels’ Julia Ashley.

“There’s a reason why the national championship is here this year,” the senior defender said. “It’s for us.”

Ashley and her teammates are no strangers to the venue that will play host to this year’s College Cup. They’ve played 12 times this season at the WakeMed complex while their permanent stadium in Chapel Hill is being rebuilt.

The home-field advantage came into play last Saturday, when a large, supportive crowd helped lift the Tar Heels (20-3-2) to an NCAA quarterfinal victory against UCLA.

Now that coach Anson Dorrance’s team has advanced to soccer’s version of the Final Four, more than the surroundings will be familiar for UNC. This will be its 25th trip to the College Cup in the 37 years it’s been held.

Although the Tar Heels have won a record 21 national championships, they haven’t raised the trophy since 2012. It’s a drought that weighs heavily on the minds of this year’s team members, especially seniors such as goalkeeper Samantha Leshnak.

“We’ve been training for this moment all our lives,” she said. “For it to actually become a reality is undescribable. I’m so happy I can do it with the Tar Heels because I would love to carry on the tradition of amazing people, amazing women and championships.”

Leshnak is especially motivated to return UNC back to the women’s soccer mountain.

She took it personally a year ago when the Tar Heels’ championship bid ended in the Sweet 16 with a 2-1 home loss to Princeton.

Leshnak more than redeemed herself against UCLA by making two big saves in the penalty kick shootout that gave UNC the victory after the teams played to a 2-2 draw in regulation and overtime.

“After last year, it was a rough one losing in the Sweet 16,” teammate Ashley said. “She made a couple of mistakes in that game. We all did. But I think she partially blamed herself and (Saturday), Sam won us that game. To save two PKs is pretty unbelievable.”

As much as the loss that ended the 2017 season has driven the Tar Heels, another more recent defeat has provided them with an even greater source of motivation. That would be a 3-2 loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament final on Nov. 4, a game in which the Seminoles scored the decisive goal with just under seven minutes remaining.

FSU, the nation’s fourth-ranked team, will play defending national champion and top-seeded Stanford in Friday’s second semifinal. UNC and Georgetown (21-0-3) play at 5 p.m. Both games are sold out.

“Since we lost against Florida State, it was kind of a bad day to have a bad game, but it just brought us together so much more,” Leshnak said. “We were like, you know what, we’re special. Let’s do something about it.”

While it was Leshnak who made the saves and fellow upperclassmen Ashley and Dorian Bailey who scored the goals that lifted UNC past UCLA and into the College Cup, the Tar Heels are actually a young team.

Their four first-team All-ACC selections were sophomore forward Alessia Russo, sophomore midfielder Taylor Otto, freshman midfielder Brianna Pinto and sophomore defender Emily Fox. Russo was the league’s Offensive Player of the Year after posting six goals and four assists despite playing in only 14 games because of injury and a commitment to her home country England in the U20 FIFA World Cup in France.

Russo is just one of many UNC players with international experience, a fact their coach said offsets their relative youth against college competition.

“I think we have a shockingly mature team for a team that starts so many freshmen and sophomores,” Dorrance said. “Obviously a player like Lotte Wubben-Moy, who’s already played on the professional level on an amateur contract, is a part of this great spine we have. But also Emily Fox just winning with the U.S. (national) team, playing as a starter against Portugal. Brianna Pinto came back from the U20 World Cup, so I’ve got a very mature soccer roster, even though they’re young players.

“Also in our competitive cauldron, which obviously we’re famous for, the kids are competing every single day and they develop a hardness that I think makes our kids unique.”