Cameron Castleberry always knew she wanted to be a Tar Heel. So when North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance offered her a scholarship during her junior year of high school, she didn’t think twice before accepting.
Castleberry, a UNC senior who played high school soccer at Ravenscroft, grew up watching the Tar Heels dominate college soccer. She, along with teammates and seniors Darcy McFarlane and Sarah Ashley Firstenburg, were inspired by former UNC standouts like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Heather O’Reilly.
“I think we all grew up watching them win national championships as a young soccer player,” McFarlane said. “That’s kind of the highest level you can get to college wise.”
When the seniors on this season’s team were in their last year of high school in 2012, the Tar Heels won their 22nd and last national championship.
If the Tar Heels’ seniors don’t win the championship this season, the group will be the first UNC women’s soccer players to not win one.
A Tar Heel dynasty
Winning has been an integral part of the culture of UNC women’s soccer. The team has won 21 out of the 34 NCAA championships conducted since 1982 (the Tar Heels won the 1981 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national title), including nine straight from 1986 to 1994. It’s also won 21 ACC championships. There have been so many championships and accolades that there’s not enough room in the display case at the McCaskill Soccer Center for all of the trophies the team has accumulated since its start in 1979. The overflow – including one of Hamm’s Hermann trophies, the sport’s equivalent of the Heisman – is stacked in a cart in the corner.
Even if the Tar Heels have made winning look easy, it hasn’t been.
“Just because of our historical success in winning, we always have a target on our back,” Castleberry said. “Everyone is always going to give us their best shot, their best game, and that requires us to be on another level every time we step on the field.”
The gap has been narrowed between UNC and the rest of the college soccer landscape, and while the Tar Heels are still dangerous, they’re not the unquestioned rulers they once were. More and more talented female players are entering college, partially due to the work of Dorrance and Hamm. And UNC’s hold over prized recruits is no longer as tight as it once was.
After winning 12 of the first 13 NCAA championships, UNC has only won four of the past 10, and is in the midst of its longest championship drought: three years, which speaks to the greatness of the program’s fading dynasty. Few teams face the same crushing intensity of expectations and pressure.
“Because winning is such a big tradition here, when we lose it’s a big deal,” McFarlane said. “I think we’re less excited about winning a game than we are upset about losing a game.”
Injuries hit UNC
This year, the Tar Heels are 12-3-3 and 6-2-2 in the ACC. The team is ranked No. 11 in the nation. It’s arguably the worst season in program history, but UNC doesn’t have a bad team. The odds of winning a national championship are long, though, and they know the consequences of not winning the title.
“I think it’s like an unspoken pressure,” Castleberry said. “We obviously don’t talk about that, but we work so hard every day to have that be our end result.”
Halfway through last season, the Tar Heels were undefeated and ranked No. 1. But then McFarlane tore her ACL. Two other players were lost to ACL tears, and UNC limped into the NCAA tournament. Then the week of practice before the second-round game against Texas A&M, Castleberry and Joanna Boyles blew out their knees. Leading scorer Summer Green tore her ACL early in the game, and the Tar Heels’ season ended with the 1-0 loss.
Five starters graduated from that team. Boyles, who would have been a senior this year, redshirted to rehab her knee. Dorrance is no stranger to replacing talented players, but when forwards Jessie Scarpa and Taylor Otto were called to play on the national team at the U-20 World Cup this fall, the losses became staggering.
“When you’re missing eight tremendous players from the previous season, it’s going to be tough to have an extraordinary season,” Dorrance said.
The Tar Heels don’t lack for talent. Freshmen forwards Zoe Redei and Bridgette Andrzejewski, with nine of UNC’s 32 goals, have showcased moments of brilliance that illuminate a bright future for the program. But consistency remains elusive, as it is with any young team.
“They’ll have a spectacular moment followed by a boneheaded play,” Dorrance said. “They live on this roller coaster of playing with confidence and not.”
That leaves Castleberry, Firstenburg and McFarlane with their legacies up in the air. They don’t talk about it often – they’re under enough pressure as it is now – but they’re aware of what’s at stake this season. The Tar Heels play Notre Dame Friday in the ACC tournament semifinals.
“I think as seniors this year, it’s been one of our goals not to make that the story of our season,” McFarlane said.
A championship isn’t out of reach. The Tar Heels have a good chance of making the NCAA tournament, and then six wins in six games will put their names in the right column in the record books.
But what happens if they don’t? What happens if they’re the ones who let the standard fall after more than three decades of excellence?
Castleberry laughed nervously. McFarlane looked away.
“I don’t think I want to comment on that,” McFarlane said.