Happy Returns

Happy Returns

Photos courtesy UNC Athletic Communications

The North Carolina women's soccer team has been making history since its inaugural season in 1979. The last four years have proved no different, though perhaps for different reasons.

 The Tar Heels won 22 national titles in their first 34 seasons, their last coming in 2012. But in 2013, they fell in an NCAA quarterfinal matchup for the first time ever, losing to eventual national champion UCLA in double overtime. In 2014, they scored a program-low 31 goals in 20 games. In 2015, four midfielders tore their ACLs in a five-week span and a fifth tore hers in UNC's loss to Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

 And last season, with a 1-0 defeat to West Virginia in the College Cup, a trio of true seniors became the first to play four years in Chapel Hill without winning a national title.

The aftermath for head coach Anson Dorrance is a roster that will open its season August 18 against Duke without a player who has won a national championship, something he hasn't dealt with in almost 40 years. But it's also a squad that could hoist the trophy at season's end.

Three of the players who could have the biggest impact in 2017 didn't play for last season's College Cup team. Both Jessie Scarpa and Taylor Otto redshirted the season while representing the United States in the 2016 U-20 Women's World Cup, while incoming freshman Emily Fox started alongside them as one of a few high school players on the roster.

“Those three have already proven themselves to be three of the best young college players in the country,” Dorrance said.

The head coach expects two more talented freshmen, forward Alessia Russo and defender Lotte Wubben-Moy, to join them in September after competing for England in the UEFA Under-19 Championships.

Otto has played all over the field during her career, but Dorrance says she will anchor the back line as the team's starting center back this upcoming season.

Scarpa, a redshirt junior, will try to pick up where she left off at the starting center forward position, where she notched eight goals and eight assists for the Tar Heels in 2015. Those numbers would have ranked second and tied for first, respectively, on last year's team.

Jessie Scarpa

Jessie Scarpa

Joining Scarpa up top will be two standout sophomores, Bridgette Andrzejewski and Madison Schultz. Andrzejewski led UNC in goals (nine) and points (20) in 2016 on her way to winning ACC Freshman of the Year and third-team All-America honors. Schultz didn't score a goal until the final game of the regular season, but she went on to tally five game-winners, including three in the NCAA Tournament.

Bridgette Andrzejewski

Bridgette Andrzejewski

North Carolina's midfield will see the most turnover after losing starters Darcy McFarlane and Cameron Castleberry to graduation. That said, there are several players capable of sliding into the roles they left behind. The starting midfield will likely consist of Fox, Megan Buckingham (four goals, six assists in 2016), Annie Kingman (five goals, eight assists) and Morgan Goff (one goal).

Behind those four are a handful of proven contributors, including Dorian Bailey, Alex Kimball and Abby Elinsky. Joanna Boyles will also see action after missing the latter part of 2015 and all of 2016 with ACL tears. In her last full season in 2014, she led the Tar Heels in assists (eight) and points (14).

Helping out Otto on the back line will be Julia Ashley, the key cog in a UNC defense that allowed just 15 goals last season, and Maya Worth, who will return to the left back position after playing as a forward in 2016. Their job will be to help relieve pressure on junior goalkeeper Samantha Leshnak, who played less than 75 minutes last season while redshirt senior starter Lindsey Harris tallied a program-record 96 saves. Dorrance normally likes to use two keepers, but without another viable option behind Leshnak, the burden will fall on the junior’s shoulders alone.

"She's not going to have competition for her position,” Dorrance said. “So what I'm hoping happens is she embraces the fact that we're going to have to rely on her and she gets to her potential.”

 Despite the inexperience in the net, expectations are incredibly high for this North Carolina team - a distinct change from this point a season ago. Dorrance admitted his 2016 team looked like a mess in August, but he couldn't help but laud his players in December for the way they turned things around.

This season's squad brings back the core of that group, as well as more than 90 percent of its scoring. After four long years, 2017 is shaping up to be historically successful.