Back in August, North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance was incredulous when he saw that his women’s soccer team was ranked fourth in the nation in the preseason NSCAA poll.
Dorrance maintained that the voters – his fellow coaches – were doing so out of reputation, not validation, because the Tar Heels had graduated six starters to pro soccer contracts and two more returning starters, forward Alexa Newfield (knee) and center back Caitlin Ball (concussion), were lost for the season to injury.
“They’re saying my reserve team from last year should be ranked in the top five,” he said.
Turns out the coaches might have known what they were talking about after all.
One-third of the way through the ACC schedule, only two teams are 4-0 in conference play – No. 2 Florida State (11-1 overall) and No. 7 UNC (7-2-1).
It’s not surprising to see the Tar Heels among the nation’s elite. After all, they’ve won 22 national championships over the years. But Dorrance might also be turning in one of his best coaching efforts this season.
Two more starters have recently been lost to season-ending injuries, midfielder Brooke Elby (ACL) and defender Hanna Gardner (knee), leaving Dorrance with probably the least experienced team he has fielded in 20 years.
Only one senior, starting defender Satara Murray, sees regular playing time. However, Dorrance is making use of his customary deep bench, using 18-20 field players per match. Five of them are freshmen, including starting midfielder Megan Buckingham, whose three goals are tied for the team lead.
Sometimes the coach has the plan. And sometimes the players make the plan for him.
Following the Tar Heels’ 3-2 victory Friday over then-No. 5 Virginia Tech, Dorrance revealed that sophomore forward Sarah Ashley Firstenberg visited his office to make the request for more playing time.
“I was getting four minutes a game,” Firstenberg said. “I said if I could get 10 more, I could score a goal.” She backed up her claim, seeing 22 minutes of action against the Hokies and notching her first career goal on a header during a sequence when the Tar Heels had six substitutes on the field late in the first half.
“That goal was just out of the ether,” Dorrance said. “She just jumped above everybody, an extraordinary effort from a kid who wants more playing time. She’ll get more after scoring goals like that.”
Although Louisville dominated statistically in shots (19-9) and corner kicks (15-3), the Wolfpack got a career-high 12 saves from goalkeeper Alex McCauley, including one on a second-half penalty kick by Ricardo Velazco. McCauley was named the ACC co-player of the week.
“Getting a little bit of confidence and belief is the number one thing for us,” N.C. State coach Kelly Findley said. “The work rate, the attitude, and the commitment were fantastic. If you have that, your quality’s just going to grow. When the guys believe in themselves, we can do anything.”
With All-ACC defender Jonathan Campbell sidelined with a leg injury, Somoano has tried several candidates to shore up the back line, with varying degrees of success. Since Campbell went down, the Tar Heels have surrendered eight goals in four games after allowing only four in their first seven.
In last Friday’s 3-2 double-overtime victory over Clemson, Somoano opted for a 3-4-3 alignment, adding an extra midfielder in Verneri Valimaa. There were some early missteps, but the defense settled down to shut out the Tigers over the final 67 minutes and allowed only five shots in 101 minutes. The Tar Heels added a 3-0 shutout Tuesday of Campbell.
“We probably wouldn’t have done it if Jonny Campbell was still playing,” Somoano said of the three-man back line, although the coach is committed to rotating more players in the interim.
One of those is junior defender Walker Hume, a Rollins (Fla.) College transfer who was going to be redshirted before Campbell’s injury. Hume contributed a goal and an assist against the Tigers.
In men’s action Friday, No. 17 UNC (7-4, 2-2) hosts Virginia Tech (7-4, 2-2), while Duke (5-4-1, 2-2-0) goes to No. 14 Virginia (7-3-1, 2-1-1), and N.C. State (5-4-2, 1-2-1) is at Boston College (4-4-1, 1-3-0).