N.C. State women’s soccer team hadn’t won an ACC game in two years and had never won a game at North Carolina.
A 1-0 win in Chapel Hill last week changed both streaks for the Wolfpack. For fourth-year coach Tim Santoro, who is trying to rebuild a once-proud program in the midst of a 20-year NCAA drought, the win couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We were 0-10 (in the ACC) the last two years,” Santoro, 44, said. “You can talk to the team about improving and you can talk about how we’re better but until they get a tangible result like that, then I think sometimes talk is cheap.”
Any conference win would have been a shot of confidence for the Wolfpack (7-2), which hosts Notre Dame (5-1-3) on Thursday night at Dail Soccer Field on campus, but a win over the Tar Heels was an unexpected bonus.
UNC, with 21 NCAA titles on coach Anson Dorrance’s resume, had been 21-0 at home against the Wolfpack and had won the previous three games by a combined score of 13 to 2.
“The fact that it was Carolina, still makes us speechless,” junior midfielder Cailyn Boch said.
That’s not a game, Boch said, N.C. State could have won in either of the previous two seasons. The confidence just wasn’t there.
“In the past we would almost get scared and intimidated,” said Boch, who went to Millbrook. “Now, we have this confidence that we are good.”
In the past we would almost get scared and intimidated. Now, we have this confidence that we are good.
N.C. State junior midfielder Cailyn Boch
The program rebuild has gone slowly but that’s what former Wake Forest assistant Santoro had expected when he took the job in 2013.
Seven different ACC teams have gone to the College Cup, soccer’s version of the Final Four, in the past six years. And that doesn’t include Notre Dame, which won the national title in 2010 as a member of the Big East. At least two ACC teams have made the College Cup in the each of the past five years.
“As we’re building, the rest of the league is not going backwards,” Santoro said. “Women’s soccer in the ACC is as strong as any sport in any conference for either gender. I’d put it right up there with SEC football or anything else.”
N.C. State hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1996. Noted goalkeeper Sydney Wootten, a 19-year-old sophomore: “I wasn’t even alive.”
So there was a lot of ground to make up for Santoro. Recruiting in women’s soccer is a two-year cycle and only now are the recruits from Santoro’s first full classes – the sophomores and freshmen – getting a chance to make a difference.
Nine of the 11 starters vs. UNC were either freshmen or sophomores. Freshman forward Kia Rankin scored the game’s only goal and Wootten made eight saves for her fourth straight shutout.
Confidence helps, Santoro said, but so does talent.
“These last two classes have really taken us to a different level talent-wise and it’s showing,” Santoro said. “We just have more talent than we’ve ever had. And the youngsters are growing up really, really fast. They’re learning on the fly.”
Freshman forward Tziarra King (30) and Rankin (23) lead the team in shots and have combined to produce seven goals. Freshman midfielder Michaella van Maanen has added four goals.
Junior forward Jackie Stengel leads the team with five goals but missed the UNC win with a knee injury. Santoro is hoping to get Stengel, the team captain and leading scorer last year, back before the end of the season.
Santoro wasn’t sure N.C. State could beat UNC without Stengel. His young team surprised him.
“We’re still inexperienced at times, and naive at times, but you don’t go to Chapel Hill and win if you don’t have something going right,” Santoro said. “The question now is can we maintain that?”
With five more games against top 25 teams, Santoro will get his answer soon enough.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
No. 24 Notre Dame at N.C. State
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Dail Soccer Field, Raleigh