A little luck, a lot of perseverance led UNC to 22nd championship

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 4, 2012 

— When she was about 8 years old, Caitlin Ball served as a ball girl at Fetzer Field for North Carolina women’s soccer games. She dreamed of one day running up and down that field, a member of the Tar Heels, and of becoming a part of perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of college sports.

She dreamed of a scene that became reality on Sunday, when Ball and her UNC teammates celebrated the Tar Heels’ 22nd national championship, and first since 2009, after a 4-1 victory against Penn State at Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego. After traveling home through the night, Ball and her teammates returned here at 9 a.m. on Monday.

No campus celebration awaited them. No public spectacle. It was back to normal. Players were told to go to class. Ball spent part of the day waiting for the realization to register, waiting for some kind of moment that made what happened on Sunday seem real instead of like a fantasy.

“We were all just ecstatic,” said Ball, a sophomore defender who walked onto the team from East Chapel Hill High. “That’s the real feeling right now. I don’t think it’s really sunk in for any of us yet.”

For so long, coach Anson Dorrance and the UNC women’s soccer team made winning look easy. The Tar Heels won nine consecutive national championships between 1986 and 1994, and then won four consecutive national titles between 1996 and 2000.

During the 1990s, the Tar Heels compiled more national championships (eight) than losses (seven). Given the history of the program Dorrance built, what happened on Sunday might seem like just another championship in a long line of them. It wasn’t, though.

After a season filled with near-constant roster adjustments and injuries, Dorrance on Monday described this national championship as the most satisfying of his career. Never before had a team he coached accomplished so much after experiencing as much adversity.

He took special satisfaction in defeating Stanford, the 2011 national champion, in the NCAA tournament semifinals.

“The Stanford lineup was littered with our recruiting failures,” Dorrance said. “Even a couple of kids that originally committed to us and then jumped ship later. So losing these great players to them after they had committed to us was particularly painful. You can imagine the wonderful schadenfreude I was feeling when we won the game.”

UNC entered the NCAA tournament with five losses, which tied for the second-most in any season in school history. The Tar Heels began the tournament without victories in their past nine overtime games.

But they beat BYU in double overtime in the tournament quarterfinals, and then defeated Stanford in double overtime in the national semifinals. Before that, in their third-round game against Baylor, the Heels prevailed in a shootout after the teams ended regulation and two overtimes tied at 1.

Was there some intangible quality about these Tar Heels that allowed such success in overtime? Did UNC possess a certain level of toughness or heart that allowed it to advance in three consecutive overtime games?

“Actually, it’s even more mundane,” Dorrance said. “It’s called luck. We could have easily lost to Baylor. BYU had this great run by their superstar center back up the middle of our defense in [double overtime] and she beat the goal keeper off the dribble and all she had to do was slip it into an open yet.

“And when she shot, a kid [Brooke Elby] that was making a 60-yard sprint from the mid-stripe just got her body in the way of the shot, otherwise we would have been toast in that game. … But I certainly don’t detract from the commitment my kids made.”

Some of Dorrance’s teams didn’t need luck as much as this one did. Rarely did anything come easily for these Tar Heels.

When UNC began the season, three of the team’s best players were competing with the U.S. under-20 national team. Another, one of the Heels’ best freshmen, was playing for New Zealand’s under-20 national team.

The Heels lost one of their best defensive players, Megan Brigman, to an injury in the first four minutes of the first game of the season. Ball missed nine games in the middle of the season because of an injury.

“What it did, really, was it hardened a deeper roster,” Dorrance said. “Because there’s a whole collection of kids that played early as starters but then became reserves when the starters first came back. … These subs weren’t real subs.

“They were actually starting-caliber players that were on the bench because we’re so deep. Maybe appropriately, it was our adversity that shaped us and then allowed us to make such a deep run into the NCAA tournament.”

Dorrance has experienced more success than any coach in the history of his sport, but he hasn’t remained committed to the status quo. Entering the season, he made changes. For one, he turned over the organization of practices to Cindy Parlow Cone, a volunteer assistant who spent 10 seasons on the U.S. national team.

Cone played at UNC from 1995 through 1998, and twice won national player of the year honors. Dorrance said giving Cone responsibility over practices provided an “excellent way to maybe extend my coaching life because of the new energy that she brought.”

Another change Dorrance made was to adopt some of the training philosophies and methods of Raymond Verheijen, a Dutch soccer coach whom Dorrance described as “brilliant.” The Tar Heels this season were a better-conditioned, fitter team, and that, Ball said, showed during that grueling run of overtime games.

Ball said it wasn’t coincidental that UNC was often at its best during overtime in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re just really fit this year and very deep,” she said. “So we typically had worn other teams out by then. But it’s still nerve-racking.”

‘Kids nobody recruited’

Ball was one of three walk-ons, along with defender Hannah Gardner and goalkeeper Adelaide Gay, who played significantly in the back. Never before, Dorrance said, had the Tar Heels played three walk-ons at the same time during a national championship season.

The walk-ons, whom Dorrance described as “kids nobody recruited,” combined with the likes of Kealia Ohai and Satara Murray to deliver the most unlikely of the Tar Heels’ 22 national championships. Ohai, who led UNC with nine goals, was named the NCAA tournament’s most outstanding offensive player, while Murray was named the tournament’s most outstanding defensive player.

Weeks ago, none of this might have seemed possible. The Tar Heels suffered a 1-0 defeat to Virginia in the ACC tournament, and they entered the NCAA tournament with a No. 2 seed that Dorrance thought was too high.

Yet even then, after losing the same number of games in one season that UNC lost between 1986 and 1998, the Tar Heels believed their best was yet to come. They still had to beat three No. 1 seeds, win two games in double overtime and another on penalty kicks.

The game has changed since the most dominant days of his dynasty, Dorrance said. It’s more difficult now than it was. Which is why he’ll remember this unlikely championship run as the most satisfying he has experienced.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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