Flying 2,500 miles instead of playing 25 minutes from campus is a fitting end to an unusual North Carolina’s women’s soccer season, but an equally unfortunate – and entirely avoidable – one.
The Tar Heels are back in the College Cup for the first time since 2012, an abnormal drought for the sport’s most powerful program, but instead of playing in a semifinal Friday night at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park, they’re in San Jose, Calif., thanks to House Bill 2.
The women’s soccer championship was one of seven NCAA championships moved from North Carolina in September because of HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that allows state-sanctioned discrimination against the LGBT community and has provoked nationwide outrage. So instead of practicing on campus Wednesday, North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance was in the Bay Area calling around trying to find a practice field since the NCAA didn’t provide facilities until Thursday.
“We asked Stanford and they said no,” Dorrance said. “I was hoping they’d say no. I wanted that for incentive next time we play them.”
Dorrance was philosophical about the Tar Heels’ unexpected travel plans, in part because his team lost eight starters from a year ago, struggled through the first part of the season and finished on a 12-1-3 run to make North Carolina’s 27th final four – the only destination that really matters. But the Tar Heels already had to play the ACC title game in Charleston, S.C., instead of Cary after the ACC followed the NCAA’s lead, so this is a double HB2 whammy for them.
“We certainly heard from a lot of people who voted for Roy Cooper,” Dorrance said. “A lot of it is the political, tongue-in-cheek banter that goes with it. We’ve never raised it with (our players). Someone’s got to travel across the country. Sometimes it’s us. It’s not an issue.”
Cooper, who cleared the 10,000-vote margin over incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory this week while McCrory continues to dispute the election results, was unquestionably boosted in the election by HB2 blowback. Three important statewide races went Democratic in a state that voted Republican for president and senate, and they happen to be three that could potentially have an impact on HB2: Cooper, for governor; Josh Stein, for attorney general; and Michael Morgan, for Supreme Court justice.
But even when Cooper’s apparent victory is certified and final, efforts to amend or repeal HB2 will still face the same Republican-dominated legislature that pushed the bill through in the first place, although there were a few Republicans who expressed a willingness to revisit HB2 ahead of the election. Any potential for change there will likely await the court-ordered redistricting and special election scheduled for 2017.
We need to get this, if it’s possible, resolved in January. I don’t know they can wait much longer than that. I’m very concerned about the fact we could be facing a six-year drought of NCAA championships in a market like this, where college sports are part of the culture and fabric here. That’s a killer.
Scott Dupree, GRSA executive director
Meanwhile, the damage caused by HB2 to sports in North Carolina continues to mount. Saturday, the ACC football championship will be played in what figures to be a half-empty stadium in Orlando (tickets available on StubHub for as little as $8) instead of a packed house in Charlotte, where the excited fan bases of Clemson and Virginia Tech were both within easy driving distance. Both Duke and North Carolina look like potential No. 1 seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament, but instead of going to Greensboro together in March, they’ll likely end up in Greenville, S.C. The NBA long ago pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte. This would have been Cary’s eighth College Cup, well on its way to becoming the Omaha of college soccer.
The NCAA has yet to move any events from the 2017-18 academic year, although it and the ACC have threatened to do so, but the bigger issue is the ongoing NCAA bid cycle for events from 2018-19 to 2021-22. The time frame for choosing those sites was pushed back to 2017, but the clock is ticking. The Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance and its bid partners applied to host 57 events over four years. They could end up with zero. This became a point of discussion at Thursday’s meeting of the Centennial Authority, which oversees PNC Arena. Aware of the time pressure, some members requested arena general manager Dave Olsen provide a written report outlining specific financial losses suffered by the arena to help them lobby legislators.
“My sense is we’re not going to have much more time than January,” GRSA executive director Scott Dupree said. “We need to get this, if it’s possible, resolved in January. I don’t know they can wait much longer than that. I’m very concerned about the fact we could be facing a six-year drought of NCAA championships in a market like this, where college sports are part of the culture and fabric here. That’s a killer.”
While North Carolina’s women flew away, 500 teams of girls are headed here for a massive youth soccer tournament hosted by CASL, expecting to see the best teams in college soccer play this weekend. They will instead have to find other entertainment. The GRSA, on Twitter, suggested Cary’s Chinese Lantern Festival.
“The College Cup being in town makes that event even better,” Dupree said. “When those kids have a chance to see the best players in America, that’s an added bonus that will really be missed.”
They’re not the only ones missing out.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Tar Heel turnaround
In August, when Anson Dorrance got his first look at what would be his North Carolina team this season, minus eight starters from a year ago, he was not surprised at what he saw, but he was “horrified.” Four months later, the Tar Heels are back in the College Cup for the 27th time but first since winning in 2012 and second since 2009, playing West Virginia in the semifinals on Friday, the conclusion to what Dorrance called one of the most gratifying seasons of his long career in Chapel Hill.
For a program used to annual excellence, it was a most unusual season. At midseason, Dorrance turned the lineup upside down, giving preference to players he thought would “fight” as opposed to the most technically skilled, which meant starting a converted left back and two freshmen at forward. The team also rallied and came together in response to the death of a teammate’s brother in October. The Tar Heels’ only loss since then was on penalty kicks in the ACC title game.
After losing 1-0 to N.C. State at home, the Tar Heels finished the season 12-1-3 and upset South Carolina in the NCAA tournament to restore what they would say is their rightful spot in the College Cup.
“I don’t want to pretend for a second we’ve transformed ourselves into an incredibly talented team, but it’s a very good team,” Dorrance said.
Because of the drought, the Tar Heels have only two players, both redshirt seniors, who have made it this far. Will Dorrance prepare this team differently than those with more experience? He’s not sure.
“I don’t have much experience with teams that haven’t been here before,” Dorrance said. “I’ll let you know on Monday.”