UNC next obstacle for Texas A&M soccer

Courtesy of Grant Halverson

Texas A&M players rush to celebrate after winning on penalty kicks in a shootout against Texas Tech.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Unlike lightning, history has a way of repeating itself if you stick around a given place long enough. And no spot offers more women's college soccer history than the University of North Carolina's Fetzer Field.

A season ago, North Carolina's march to another national championship nearly came to an untidy end in a Sweet 16 game at home against a seeded team from Texas. The Tar Heels trailed Baylor with less than 10 minutes to play and escaped only after a draw and a penalty shootout.

No school has more NCAA tournament wins (27) without ever reaching the College Cup than Texas A&M. Nowhere have the Aggies come closer to breaking that streak than in Chapel Hill, three times the site of a quarterfinal loss for the Aggies.

To continue its title defense, North Carolina again needs to beat a team from the Lone Star State. And to earn another opportunity to play for a place in the College Cup, Texas A&M needs to win here.

It didn't do that Friday night, not officially, but it did enough to advance in a penalty shootout against Texas Tech after what goes in the record book as a 2-2 draw.

Texas A&M first had to deal with another reminder of the past in the form of former Big 12 foe Texas Tech in the second round. More importantly, given many of the players on the field Friday weren't involved when the teams last met in 2011, the Aggies had to find their way through a stingy defense for the second time in as many rounds.

Courtesy of Grant Halverson

Texas A&M's Annie Kunz reacts after scoring on a header against Texas Tech.

Despite earning a No. 4 seed, the Aggies drew Utah and Texas Tech in the first two rounds, teams from major conferences that took the field ranked in the top 25 in the nation in fewest goals allowed.

Texas A&M controlled possession for much of the first half, but it couldn't break down Texas Tech in the final third. In fact, while the Aggies piled up an 11-4 shot advantage before halftime, far and away the best chance for either team came when Red Raiders forward Janine Beckie found herself in alone on goal on a counter set up nicely by Paige Strahan. Aggies keeper Jordan Day made the save, but it wouldn't be the last time Beckie impressed or caused headaches, depending on your point of view.

Texas A&M quickly re-established possession at the start of the second half, but with its back line stretched as it pushed forward, Briana Rohmer slipped through on a counter, took a pass from Alli Murphy and put Texas Tech in front 1-0. Down a goal to a team that had allowed just seven goals in 23 games was not a comfortable place to be.

Then again, the Aggies needed overtime to beat the Utes in the first round and trailed Florida at halftime of the SEC championship game that preceded it. Finding themselves in a tough spot, one exacerbated by their own inability to solve the Red Raiders in the final third of the field, was nothing new.

They would come back. And then come back again. First came Annie Kunz's header off a corner kick in the 61st minute to tie the game at 1-1.

"I definitely felt like we had a lot of opportunities that we missed," Kunz said. "But I mean, this team has been fighting the whole season. We honestly have proved ourselves a lot of time -- we've been in overtime situations, we've been in situations where we have to come back, and we've always fought through.

"I think that just shows the character of this team and that we're not going to stop until we win."

Kunz lived that last mantra rather literally against the Red Raiders. A starter and the team's leading scorer a season ago, she had played limited minutes off the bench down the stretch this season after she suffered a leg injury against Baylor on Sept. 8. Kunz missed much of the rest of the month, practice and game time someone who spends her spring season as a heptathlete for the track team couldn't afford to miss. She didn't play more than 53 minutes in any of the team's three games in the SEC tournament or in the first-round game in the NCAA tournament.

"The hard thing for Annie is because she's a part-time player -- she's a part-time soccer player and she's a part-time track athlete," A&M coach G Guerrieri said. "So the time that she has with us is the time that she has with us. Having her out for the better part of a month following that, along with the psychological recovery that goes along with it, was a real challenge for her. But she's been ticking it up."

She entered the game midway through the first half and never exited, Guerrieri crediting associate coach Phil Stephenson for pushing to leave her on the field after halftime and through both overtimes. A 6-foot target with all the agility and athleticism to be expected of someone with her other athletic life, she put pressure on the heart of Texas Tech's back line, repeatedly holding off defenders to gather the ball with her back to goal, then turning and testing standout keeper Victoria Esson with low, hard shots. And as the header proved, she is always a threat in the air.

A program that made its first NCAA tournament appearance a season ago and still hasn't lost a game in regulation (it lost in overtime in the second round against Florida State a season ago), Texas Tech answered back after Kunz leveled the score. This time it was Beckie who slipped behind the defense on a counter and showed remarkable poise and patience to go around Day and wait for the opening to slide the ball in the back of the net in the 75th minute.

Pulling one goal back against Texas Tech's defense was one thing. Doing it a second time, and with the clock ticking down, was asking the near impossible.

But with a little more than six minutes remaining, Texas A&M's sustained possession earned it a free kick near the corner in Texas Tech's end. Rachel Lenz's shot off the kick smacked off the crossbar, sparing Tech once, but Shea Groom -- both Texas A&M's best player and one of its smallest -- headed home the rebound to even the score 2-2.

Two saves from Day and four conversions on as many attempts from her teammates sent Texas A&M to the Sweet 16 for the 12th time. And now all that stands in the Aggies' way is perhaps the greatest program in the history of college team sports. Again.

When he saw the tournament bracket and a path that would take his team through Chapel Hill, Guerrieri, the coach for every game the Aggies have ever played, turned pragmatic.

"Well, I know the hotel we're going to stay in," the coach told himself.

The task for Texas A&M became that much more difficult with 11 minutes remaining in the first half of the second game between No. 1 North Carolina and Indiana. That was when All-American Crystal Dunn entered the game for the first time, having missed her team's past three games with a hamstring injury. Not even four minutes later, she scored the opening goal in North Carolina's 4-0 romp.

But Sunday afternoon, one of the best nonconference rivalries in the sport will renew with the visitors in their customary role as underdog. The teams met nine times in the past decade. North Carolina won seven of those games, but four went to overtime and only two were decided by more than one goal.

"There have been some great, great games over the years," Guerrieri said. "So we'll keep banging on those doors as long as we can until we hopefully get through. The thing is, when we've come here, we've always been really well taken care of. We respect where we are and what this place has been for women's college soccer. It just really makes it that much more fun for our kids. It's a pretty cool experience to think back on.

"For us now, the next cool experience would be to leave here with a win to go on to the next round."

In other words, the Aggies would like to make some history.

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