UNC honors women's soccer champions

22nd women’s soccer championship the most rewarding

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 7, 2012 

— It was during a preseason meeting with Bubba Cunningham, the North Carolina athletics director, when women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance said he wasn’t sure if the Tar Heels would earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

Those were bold words coming from Dorrance, the most successful coach in the history of his sport, and a man who had led UNC to 21 national championships. During that same meeting, though, he said if his team could just make the tournament, he believed the Tar Heels could win it.

Dorrance recounted the story on Thursday during an on-campus celebration UNC hosted for the team, which last weekend defeated Penn State in San Diego to win its 22nd national championship and 21st NCAA tournament title. The victory on Sunday ended an NCAA tournament run unlike any other in the history of women’s soccer.

UNC, which entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed, defeated three top-seeded teams. The Heels also advanced through three consecutive overtime games in the tournament, a feat no other national champion had ever accomplished.

After a season filled with adversity – which included injuries and sharing some of his players with various national teams – Dorrance described this national championship as the most rewarding of his career. He gathered with his players for a celebration inside Carmichael Arena, where a crowd of more than 1,000 cheered the latest chapter in a dynasty unlike any other in college sports.

North Carolina’s 21 NCAA championship trophies lined the front of the stage where the players sat. There were 10 trophies on the left, 10 more on the right and the one the team won on Sunday in the middle, in front of a lectern where Dorrance and others spoke.

“I’ve worked in conferences that don’t have this many championships,” said Cunningham.

Dorrance will remember this team as one that overcame more than any of his others to win a national championship. That means a lot to him. So does the way his players offered their support during difficult moments off the field.

Throughout the season, Dorrance’s wife, M’Liss, endured various health problems. For the first time in Dorrance’s 34 years at UNC, she couldn’t be with the Tar Heels during the NCAA tournament. But during the tournament, the Tar Heels wore red wrist bands in her honor.

During his public remarks on Thursday, Dorrance became emotional when he described what that meant.

“There’s no greater gift a team has ever given me than playing for her,” he said.

Amber Brooks and Maria Lubrano, the team captains, initiated the idea to wear the wristbands.

“The fact that we kind of dedicated those games to M’Liss, and to see how he reacted to that was – it was insane,” said Kealia Ohai, who was named the NCAA tournament’s most outstanding offensive player. “When they presented that to Anson, it was just – I mean, there were tears, everyone was crying.

“And it was right before our semifinals. So I really do think that that helped a lot in the tournament.”

At the start of the celebration on Thursday night, a video played that showed various highlights and moments from throughout the season. One of them was a pregame speech that Dorrance gave in which he challenged his team to provide an opponent with a “reintroduction of who we are – what UNC soccer is about.”

The Tar Heels entered the NCAA tournament with five losses, an almost unheard of number in the proud history of the program. And Dorrance acknowledged that there had been plenty of doubters, given those losses.

UNC has dominated women’s soccer like no other team has dominated any other collegiate sport, yet the Heels entered the postseason in an unfamiliar role: as underdogs. They believed they were the ones with something to prove.

“Using that to motivate us is what really made us successful,” junior forward Crystal Dunn said. “I think the perseverance that we had all year is pretty much what gave us that success.”

Dorrance spoke often of that perseverance. The Tar Heels fought through injuries, roster upheavals and the pressure that comes from upholding the program’s legacy. After it all, they came together for each other, and for their coach, especially, to celebrate the most improbable – and most satisfying – of their 22 national championships.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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