SAN JOSE, CA. — Pressure is a privilege. It’s an adage that’s been repeated by highly accomplished athletes and programs for decades. It’s hard to name a collegiate program in any sport that embodies this more than the University of North Carolina women’s soccer program.
So storied is the Tar Heels program that a book entitled Nothin’ Finer Than Carolina was released in 1993 chronicling the history of the program, just eleven years after the NCAA held its first women’s soccer championship. The other participants in this year’s College Cup, by contrast, were either in their inaugural seasons or not yet in existence. Of course, several more books about the program have been published in the intervening years.
But pressure can also be debilitating, and often self-defeating. In order to get make it to the final weekend this season, North Carolina had to focus on the present. While focusing on the here and now, senior midfielder Darcy McFarlane admitted that there’s pressure on her class who, if they fail to hoist the trophy Sunday, will become the first class to leave Chapel Hill without a national title.
“I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel any pressure about it but a big part of leadership going into this year was try not to make it about the past and the history and the pressure that might be on us,” McFarlane said. “It’s really been about what this team is this year and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful is because we’ve been able to put that pressure behind us and just focus on what we have now.”
Focusing on the present has allowed this year’s team to write a new chapter in Tar Heels’ history unlike any other. North Carolina entered the 2016 season after their earliest exit ever in the NCAA tournament in large part due to a series of devastating knee injuries late in the season.
The 2016 season got off to a rough start as well for the Tar Heels. In September, Southern California handed the Tar Heels their worst loss (3-0) in five seasons, followed by a rare defeat at the hands of North Carolina State. North Carolina looked destined to make history for the wrong reasons but the team persevered and matured as the season progressed.
“If you saw us play in August, you wouldn’t believe this team would be at this juncture,” head coach Anson Dorrance said, “Of all the teams I’ve coached in my forty years of coaching this team has improved the most. I love going to practice with them they’re an incredibly joyful collection of athletes and hard working and I’ve absolutely enjoyed the ride.”
The Tar Heels’ response to those early season struggles impressed their coach. For him, a team’s response to adversity that is the true measuring stick of its mettle.
“There were a lot of environments where there would have been no resilience,” Dorrance said crediting the leadership of seniors Hanna Gardener and McFarlane for the team’s positive response. “We would have folded up like a spider in a fire and just surrendered…but what was really fascinating for me was during that stretch practices were still incredibly enjoyable, the kids were still improving, they still wanted to compete and it was just incredibly impressive.
The Tar Heels employ a unique system among women’s programs called the competitive cauldron in which all members of the team are measured against each other daily in every drill and activity in practice. Understanding the vast chasm between where the team was and where they wanted to be, the competitive cauldron took on added significance this season.
“This year especially we’ve all embraced that and competed really hard in practice because we knew how much we needed to improve in order to get here and then in order for the competitive cauldron to work well in terms of team chemistry, we also have to respect each other and be friends off the field,” McFarlane explained.
While the Tar Heels have grown considerably over the course of the season, one player’s consistency has been critical in getting the Tar Heels’ two victories away from another title. Senior goalkeeper Lindsey Harris’ remarkable play in net has proved vital and in the words of Dorrance, she saved the team in games back when they were “relatively miserable” in the beginning of the season.
Last weekend, the Texas native broke the record for saves in a season against South Carolina. One of the stops in that quarterfinal contest was on a would-be game-tying penalty kick.
“When a goalkeeper on your team breaks a save record, it’s sort of a mixed metaphor about your own team because if you’re breaking saves records, usually you’re eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament and yet, we’ve hung in there,” Dorrance said about Harris’ play this season, admitting she’s one of the major reasons his squad has gotten this far.
Perhaps that a mixed metaphor is fitting for a program from which so much is expected but paradoxically not from this particular team, at least early in the season.