Special to The Herald-Sun
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Remarkably resilient North Carolina returned to the mountaintop for the first time since 2009 Sunday, downing Penn State 4-1 to win its 21st NCAA women’s soccer championship.
The No. 13-ranked Tar Heels (15-5-3), the lowest-ranked team in the College Cup’s Final Four, had stumbled through their regular season with five losses. If there was a year North Carolina could be had, this was it.
Such logic discounts the Tar Heels’ postseason prowess. They’re among the best playoff performers in college sports, with all the hardware that comes with it.
Despite several close calls along the way, North Carolina continually found new and innovative ways to win.
The strange season reached a triumphant end at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium Sunday as the Heels won it all for the 21st time in Coach Anson Dorrance’s 34 years at the helm. The Heels have played in the title game 26 times in that span and won their most recent previous national title in 2009.
With North Carolina, this can’t be an underdog story. The program is too big for that. It is an instance where the Tar Heels fared better than their track record suggested it would.
“I think we overachieved,” North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said. “I thought our NCAA tournament seeding was too high and that we deserved worse. A lot of other teams could’ve got the best of us along the way, but we’re survivors. We never quit and always seem to come through in the clutch. I love this team’s spirit and I’ve really enjoyed this run. It was a chemistry miracle how we all came together.”
That’s especially true considering how many players the Tar Heels missed throughout the season. They lost some to injury, others to national team commitments. They kept plugging away with reserves who ultimately became their deadliest weapon.
Dorrance cycled players in an out against the Nittany Lions (21-4-2), and slowly wore them down. Opponent fatigue created second-half chances and ultimately the margin of victory. The Tar Heels sealed this win three unanswered goals — two off corner kicks — in the second half.
“Ultimately, we were going to win this game with depth,” Dorrance said. “That’s our greatest strength, and we played to it. We stuck with the plan of rotating players in and out, and it worked out well. Because we lost so many people early on, the reserves gained great experience, so much so that there’s little drop off between starter and reserve.
“This might be the deepest team I’ve ever had, and that’s what carried us through in this game and these playoffs.”
Dorrance played 21, and 15 had significant minutes.
The first half was even, with a goal from each side. But an early second-half goal from Hanna Gardner, an East Chapel Hill High School alumna who headed in an expertly placed corner kick from Katie Bowen, dampened Penn State’s will.
“We believed a quick one would change the dynamic of the game,” said UNC junior forward Kealia Ohai, who scored the game’s first goal in the second minute. “Hanna’s goal really lifted our team, and it seemed to have the opposite affect on them.”
North Carolina kept the pressure on and built a commanding lead that claimed the Tar Heels’ first championship since 2009. That’s a drought by North Carolina standards, considering the Tar Heels have won 21 titles in Dorrance’s 34-year tenure.
Satara Murray, who had set up the Tar Heels first goal, made it a 3-1 game in the 64th minute when she put home a rebound of a shot by Kelly McFarlane. It was her first goal of the season.
A little over 10 minutes later North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn set up Ranee Premji on a pass from the end line on the left wing and Premji made a one-touch volley and it was 4-1.
Despite an uneven season, Sunday’s performance was vintage North Carolina. They were overwhelming in all aspects, dominant from start to finish. This high note capped a season that ranks among Dorrance’s favorites.
“Winning never gets old. It gets better, and this title is extremely special,” Dorrance said. “This year was particularly challenging but, looking back, I believe the early-season adversity benefited us in the long run. It made us a deeper, more complete team. More than that, this group is fun to be around and a real privilege to coach. I couldn’t be happier with how we performed.”
The opening goal came when Ohai rifled a shot on her left foot from just outside the top of the box 18 yards out into the upper right hand corner of the net. Murray had set the scoring play up with perfect high ball that led Ohai perfectly. For Ohai, who scored the overtime game-winner in the semifinals, the goal was her ninth of the season.
Penn State got even in the 26th minute when Christine Nairn slipped a pass through three North Carolina defenders to Taylor Schram on the left wing and Schram shot over goalie Adelaide Gay into the far right hand corner. It was Schram’s fifth goal of the season.
North Carolina outshot Penn State, 24-12 for the game, including 9-4 in the first half and 15-8 in the second.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.