CHAPEL HILL — The soccer ball dropped, bounced straight up and hung in the air.
North Carolina senior goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris saw the Virginia Tech threat during the 54th minute of Sunday's scoreless game in Blacksburg, Va. She charged.
It's what players call a 50-50 ball: Whoever wants it gets it. And no one on the field wanted it more than Harris.
Harris, teammate Kristi Eveland and a Virginia Tech forward closed in on the ball just outside of the penalty area. Tech's forward bumped into Eveland, and she collided with Harris. The ball bounced to Tech's Marika Gray, and she booted the ball into the empty net for the game's only goal and UNC's first loss of the season.
"I ran out for a ball that I probably shouldn't have," Harris said.
This season, the only way to score against Harris may be to get lucky and hope her aggressive style fails. Harris has started 10 of North Carolina's 12 games this season and allowed only three goals, and also collecting five shutouts. The statistics aren't surprising. Harris has been doing it her entire life, and those results come from demanding more of herself.
"The slightest thing that may not be errors are errors in my eyes," Harris said. "I want to catch every ball cleanly. I want to save every shot that comes my way."
Her aggressive play is more a product of the team's strategy, UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. North Carolina leaves only three defenders in the back.
"This gives Ashlyn a lot more responsibility since she needs to play like a keeper/sweeper," Dorrance said. "This helps our goalkeepers and defenders develop because they are always under more pressure and they have to make more decisions."
Harris, from Satellite Beach, Fla., committed to North Carolina for soccer before she was legally allowed to drive.
She started on the Under-19 National Team at 16 years old and helped win the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women's World Cup. Harris was also in goal when the United States won again in 2004. This year she is one of three collegiate players to be invited to the full National Team camp, which is composed mainly of professional players.
"We thought she was the best goalkeeper of her generation," Dorrance said, recalling how he recruited Harris.
Unsatisfied with her current success, Harris lifted weights over the summer. She went to the gym every day and added eight pounds of muscle to her frame so that she could be more dominant and win 50-50 balls, she said. The weight training should prepare her for the physical play awaiting her at the international and professional levels.
The Tar Heels are accustomed to having players of Harris' ability commit to the program and make the national team. Being a perennial powerhouse means drawing the nation's best players. UNC has had many players miss regular-season games to attend national team camps. UNC lost both Harris and midfielder Tobin Heath for two games this season.
"It's never a positive thing when you lose an elite player," Dorrance said. "We'll certainly make sacrifices for the successes of our kids."
North Carolina isn't the only one making sacrifices. Harris says her schedule exhausts her mentally and physically. Spending time with the National Team and UNC means she has to take cross-country flights, as she did before the Virginia Tech game, to honor her commitments.
"I want to do the best I can for everyone," Harris said. "It's like I'm being pulled in a bunch of directions."
Harris needed only a day to recharge, but taking that day can be difficult. Harris says it's a matter of being professional. Practicing being professional as a college student is likely to pay off soon. Harris was redshirted her freshman year because of a torn ACL sustained during practice. She is a fifth-year senior and will be leaving school in December.
If the spring season was any indication, Harris will have success as a player in the WPS, the women's professional soccer league. North Carolina scrimmaged against two WPS teams, the Sky Blue FC and the Washington Freedom, three times. North Carolina won two of those, and Harris showcased her skills so well that her coaches predict she will be one of the top picks in the draft.
"She played like a world-class player," goalkeeper trainer Chris Ducar said. "The Washington Freedom was loaded with international professionals and American national team players. The game probably would have been 8-nothing if it wasn't for Ashlyn."
Instead, North Carolina kept it competitive and lost 3-2.
Despite her success, Harris still gets nervous before every game. The butterflies are proof that the game still means a lot to her, she says. Despite the nerves, she still projects the calm and poise of a leader.
"She's definitely a little quieter in pregame, very focused," said Caroline Boneparth, a senior who has sat next to Harris before every game as part of a pregame superstition. "I don't think she ever showed us an outward nervousness."
The players pay attention to what Harris is doing. Despite the time she's missed, Harris is a leader. Harris says she tries to lead by her actions and doesn't consider herself a vocal leader. She may not speak often, but the words stick. In peer evaluations, her verbal leadership scores have consistently been topnotch.
"They listen to her voice on the field because she's not afraid to say things," Dorrance says. "People respond to her. She's not afraid to instruct them verbally, and that's a huge weapon for us."
Harris hopes to play her last game as a collegiate player on Dec. 6, the scheduled date for the NCAA Tournament championship game.
UNC will attempt to return to its winning ways today at 7 p.m. against visiting N.C. State at Fetzer Field.
"You can't expect to go a whole season without taking a knock," Harris says. "We're not dwelling on the past. Now we just look forward to Friday's game."