Summer breeze lifts North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After a late burst of warm weather made sleeves superfluous for Friday's NCAA tournament second-round games at Fetzer Field, a chill in the air Sunday brought out winter coats and a reminder that Thanksgiving is close at hand.
That left the host to offer a reminder of its own, one that seemed fitting for a week in which houses across the country will fill with hungry diners.
When you have an old family recipe that left stomachs full for generation after generation, don't overthink things.
Talent will find goals. Relentlessness will deny them. They always have in Chapel Hill.
Behind two goals from sophomore Summer Green and the team's 15th clean sheet of the season at the other end, No. 1 North Carolina beat No. 4 Texas A&M 2-0 to advance to a quarterfinal next week against UCLA or Stanford.
Texas A&M came out unaffected by its surroundings and earned a corner kick inside of three minutes after the first of many dangerous runs from Bianca Brinson. But when the ensuing corner was cleared out of the box, Green ended up with the ball and room to run near midfield.
Less than 40 seconds after the corner kick was served at one end, Green put a shot on goal at the other end and was rewarded when the ball deflected off a Texas A&M defender and beat the wrong-footed keeper at the near post.
Not yet three minutes into the game, North Carolina had a 1-0 lead at home.
There was an element of good fortune to the goal, and Texas A&M coach G Guerrieri was probably correct in noting that goalkeeper Jordan Day had the long-distance attempt covered had the ball continued on its original path. But there is also something to a forward giving a ball a chance, to hitting it on frame with enough force so that a lucky bounce mattered.
Goal scorers get those kind of goals when they are in a run of form, and Green is that. She has five goals and five assists in the past 10 games after totaling four goals and one assist in the first 14 games.
"She's getting back to her first month and a half of her freshman-year confidence on the ball, and we're seeing it," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said. "I mean, the last couple of games, more and more confident. I absolutely love it."
Individual brilliance has been happening for North Carolina all season. It has been happening for more than three decades, to be precise. More often than not this fall, it has been Crystal Dunn or Kealia Ohai, just as it was Tobin Heath, Heather O'Reilly, Cindy Parlow, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, April Heinrichs and an All-American cast of dozens through the years.
But it could just as easily be Green, a fixture on rosters and camps for various U.S. youth national teams and one of the most talented attacking players in the country.
North Carolina didn't have Dunn for most of Sunday's game, the reigning Hermann Trophy winner forced out early with what looked like a right foot or ankle injury. (Dorrance said after the game he was unsure of either a diagnosis or a prognosis.) It still had Ohai, and it still had Green, who again found the back of the net on a penalty kick in the opening minutes of the second half after she created the call by cutting inside and firing a hard shot from close range that ricocheted off what the referee deemed was a defender's hand.
Again, good fortune on the decision. Again, fortune she put the Tar Heels in position to enjoy.
After a win early last season at Notre Dame in which Green proved the difference while Dunn and Ohai were absent for the Under-20 World Cup, Dorrance giddily teased chief assistant coach Bill Palladino about what kind of player they had on their hands for the next four seasons. That made it all the more puzzling to see her playing limited minutes at times this season, on some occasions even coming off the bench.
The Tar Heels own 21 NCAA championships because they are never short on world-class attacking players. They just needed Green to remember she fit that description.
"I think as a player, as an athlete -- and I guess as anyone -- you're always hard on yourself," Green said. "And I think I got a little too hard on myself because I wasn't playing well, or I wasn't executing some of the little things and the minor things. And that's what I think I needed to change and get better, so that's what I focused on, focused on in practice, focused on outside of practice. And I think it pays off. But I just got to keep doing all those little things right."
North Carolina always seems to have a star who can provide a goal. It also usually has a defense with few big names and even fewer goals conceded.
There are few easy days for defenders at this stage of the postseason, and fifth-year senior Megan Brigman certainly didn't have one Sunday. Not that a long day at the office is anything new.
Brigman has played 266 more minutes than any of her teammates this season, meaning she has played nearly the equivalent of three extra games. Asked about that disparity, Dorrance looked momentarily nonplussed.
He then joked, "Is it too late to correct that?"
The Tar Heels have in recent years put more emphasis on recruiting pure defenders, highly rated recruits like current starter Satara Murray. But Brigman's story is more familiar. An attacking player in high school in the state, she could have gone to other schools, received scholarship money and played right away. She chose instead to come to North Carolina as a recruited walk-on. And for most of her first year, the only difference between her role and the one she had growing up as a fan of the Tar Heels was a slightly better vantage point from which to watch games.
"Her freshman year, we weren't sure," Dorrance said of a season in which Brigman made just three appearances.
What the coaches saw was athleticism -- Green nodded her head in agreement Sunday as Dorrance called Brigman the fastest player on his roster. When injury opened a starting job in the first game of her sophomore season, against Texas A&M as it was, she stepped in. It took a season-ending injury minutes into last year's opener to finally get her off the field. And that was only temporary.
"I always dreamed of coming here," Brigman said. "I'm a very driven person, so if I want something I'm going to work my ... as hard as I can to go after it and get it. I spent that spring just working as hard as I could, getting fitter, getting better on the ball and everything to get into a position where I could play."
Every program in the country would have loved to sign Green or Dunn or Ohai. Not every program looked at Brigman and saw a future professional defender, one who chased Brinson, Shea Groom and Annie Kunz all over the field Sunday and still had the energy to get into the attack.
The back line still needed a collection of game-altering saves from senior goalkeeper Anna Sieloff to keep its clean sheet, but the group of them -- Sieloff, the back line and holding midfielder Kelly McFarlane -- are used to sharing the burden. And not getting as much attention for it as their counterparts scoring goals.
It isn't getting any easier to keep doing this, even if this seems like a strange place from which to say that. Even in the role of defending national champion, North Carolina had not won a Sweet 16 game in regulation since 2009 prior to Sunday, losing outright in 2010, exiting in a penalty kick shootout in 2011 and finally advancing via a shootout en route to last season's title.
"The mentality that they train with, the attitude that they come into games with is outstanding," Guerrieri said. "I think tactically what Anson and what [Palladino] and what [assistant coach Chris Ducar] do is outstanding. So the way that they play hasn't ... nothing has really changed within them. If anything, there has been enough talent around the country to build other programs up and allow other programs to step up and play."
They have their own recipes for success. And as Thanksgiving arrives, North Carolina is still playing soccer.