It would be easy to excuse the North Carolina women’s soccer team for not knowing how to handle adversity.
After all, they haven’t faced much of it.
But trailing No.7 Florida State 2-0 at halftime of the ACC Championship Game, the No.3 Tar Heels (17-3-1) showed their mettle, rallying with two goals before eventually losing 3-2 on Kristina Lynch’s headed goal.
The Seminoles’ (15-4-2) offensive outburst marked a number of firsts for UNC, who had won all 10 ACC conference games and shut out ACC Tournament foes Virginia Tech and Clemson to reach the Championship. Their three goals matched the total allowed by UNC over their entire conference season and the first goals allowed by goalie Samantha Leshnak in over 1,119 minutes of play.
The Tar Heels initially leveled the score with a pair of second half goals and then nearly tied the game once again on a Julia Ashley header that was saved by FSU keeper Caroline Jeffers.
“I’m disappointed but not disappointed with our effort,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “I was really proud of my team they never quit down two at the half to get back in and then to try to make it a game there at the end, which I think they did.”
Florida State struck twice in the in the first half with both goals coming from the foot of Dallas Dorosy. Her first goal came in the 36th minute after a beautiful combination of passes carved up the left side of the UNC defense. Five minutes later, Dorosy again found the back of the net when a loose cross fell perfectly at her feet.
“We went into halftime disappointed,” said senior Ru Mucherera, “but nothing negative was said. It was more of take the positives because there were still positives in the first half that we had.”
After pushing back on FSU early in the second half, the Tar Heels got a break in the 62nd minute when starting keeper Brooke Bollinger went down with an injury and was replaced by Jeffers. Just one minute later, Alex Kimball pressured Jeffers on a back pass, forcing the reserve keeper to make a mistake and giving Kimball the Tar Heels’ first goal.
Nine minutes after that, Mucherera headed home Rachel Jones’ cross for her first goal of the season, tying the game.
But the Tar Heels couldn’t capitalize on their wave of momentum and allowed a series of Seminoles attacks, eventually culminating in Lynch’s 84th minute goal.
Dorrance pointed to the absence of sophomore left back Emily Fox for the some of the holes in the Tar Heels back line. Fox missed the tournament to join the U.S. Women’s National Team for a pair of international friendlies next week. Dorrance said she will return by the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kimball said she notice the defense lacked its usual cohesiveness, but said Morgan Goff handled Fox’s position in her absence.
“I think we had a couple of mental turnoffs today as a whole as a backline,” Fox said. “Not so much that left-back spot. As a whole as a back-line I think that the communication was a little off and it led to those three goals.”
Goff wasn’t the only Tar Heel reserve called up to the starting lineup for the ACC Tournament. Kimball replaced UNC’s leading scorer Alessia Russo at center forward after Russo broke her leg in the season finale against Wake Forest. Kimball ably handled Russo’s spot on Sunday, scoring a gritty goal similar to ones Russo often produces.
“I’m trying to help my team in the best ways that I can,” Kimball said, “not so much in ways Alessia did. I definitely think about her when I’m on the field because I know what she can do when she’s on the field but I just do what I can do.”
Dorrance praised his team’s character and said he hoped losing to the highly ranked Seminoles would help the Tar Heels’ chances at a No.1 seed when the NCAA Tournament field is announced on Monday.
Mucherera, a senior who has seen the Tar Heels win just one major tournament title — last season’s ACC Championship — said she was disappointed with the loss. But she’s glad it came now and not in the NCAA Tournament later this month.
“It’s not failure,” Mucherera said. “It’s more feedback from what can we do better from that. It’s basically an evaluation of ourselves going into the tournament.”