Winning 21st title no easy feat for N. Carolina

SAN DIEGO -- The college soccer season came to a close the same way it has 21 times in 31 iterations of the Women's College Cup.

Don't be fooled into thinking another North Carolina national championship was just more of the same.

It is more difficult than it has ever been for North Carolina to live up to all its name conjures in the sport. This season and this tournament showed that time and time again.

The final score in Sunday's 4-1 win against Penn State wasn't misleading on the day, and specifically the second half, but it came at the end of a tournament in which the Tar Heels were thrice taken to overtime, once pressed all the way to the proverbial coin flip that is a penalty shootout.

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North Carolina's Kealia Ohai scores the game's first goal in the second minute against Penn State on Sunday.

It was a tournament that sent North Carolina on the road for a quarterfinal for the first time in the program's long history. And at the end of the day one which forced them to react to an opponent's attacking skill, forced them to abandon the 3-4-3 formation that is as synonymous with one program's dominance in women's soccer as the wishbone offense was to Oklahoma football or the triangle offense was to Phil Jackson's Bulls and Lakers.

It's tempting to see No. 21 as the same old story. The truth is, this is a different world.

"The opponents are better, the coaches are continuing to evolve and become more sophisticated," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said. "And it's a longer tournament. Back in the real old days, I think you played a game and you were in the Final Four. Now it's a trek, it's a six-game marathon. And it's not easy. … A single-game elimination series is terrifying."

North Carolina struck first Sunday when Kealia Ohai corralled a long ball from Satara Murray in the second minute and used her speed and technical skill to beat two defenders and drive a shot just under the crossbar. It was Ohai who scored the only goal when the United States, another team with outsized expectations attached to a name, beat an arguably more talented Germany in the final of the Under-20 Women's World Cup in September.

But one goal was never going to be enough this time. Undeterred by the deficit, Penn State came at North Carolina in waves in the opening stages.

The Nittany Lions finally equalized when Christine Nairn slipped a perfect pass to Taylor Schram for a chip finish to the far post in the 19th minute, but they could have scored even earlier than that. Soon after Schram's goal, North Carolina pulled out of its trademark formation, dropping freshman Katie Bowen into a center back position alongside sophomore Caitlin Ball and between sophomore Murray and freshman Hanna Gardner.

Penn State didn't score again, the space available to All-American Maya Hayes and speedy players like Schram and Mallory Weber shrinking.

"If they want to go to a four-back because they're kind of afraid of our pace and our width and our attacking play, then I think that's a compliment to us," Nairn said. "They did a great job holding us to one goal. We threw absolutely everything at them, including the kitchen sink, so credit to their back line and their goalkeeping."

Changing up

Dorrance said the coaches were talking about a change in formation even as Nairn threaded her pass to Schram, the writing already on the wall. The 4-2-3-1 formation they went with instead is what North Carolina's coach called his team's "bunkering" formation, one that allows them maximum protection at the expense of some attacking opportunities.

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North Carolina's Kealia Ohai (7) celebrates her goal with teammates Amber Brooks (22), Crystal Dunn (19) and Summer Green during Sunday's College Cup championship game.

This is a program that won three title games by 6-0 scores and another by a 9-1 margin. Bunkering is something other teams do against North Carolina. Or at least something other teams did.

"Penn State was making our defense look … like Swiss cheese," Dorrance said. "Maya is a significant striker; she's not just one of the better strikers in the country. That kid has everything. She's got juice, she's tactical, she's skillful, she's an incredible finisher in a myriad of ways. And she was making my young defense look like we were standing still. And then of course Nairn might have the best final pass in the collegiate game.

"So when you mix tactical slashing, bolt of lightning that's getting through our back line consistently with a girl that can see them but also get them the ball, that's a very dangerous mix for us."

The tide turned as soon as the second half began, with Ohai earning a corner kick barely 20 seconds after play commenced and Gardner coming in unmarked to head home what proved to be the winning goal. A third goal followed in the 64th minute off another corner, Murray roofing a shot that came off two teammates in front of the goal. Ranee Premji's volleyed finish in the 75th minute provided the final margin and an exclamation mark to a second half.

The final game was reflective of how well this team was playing by the end of the season. The journey meant they almost didn't get a chance to prove it.

A new ballgame

All along the way there were signs of how much different the sport is now. When North Carolina won the title in 1992 to cap a perfect season, the third of what would be four such unblemished records in a row, it played three NCAA tournament games and outscored its opponents 19-1.

Two decades ago, Baylor didn't have a women's program and there weren't many veterans of the U.S. national team old enough to have entered coaching and built a program of their own. In the third round this season, former U.S. international Marci Jobson's Baylor team outplayed North Carolina for much of a game in Chapel Hill, N.C. But Crystal Dunn rescued the Tar Heels with a bit of individual brilliance to tie the game late in regulation on the way to a penalty shootout -- just the third shootout North Carolina ever played in the NCAA tournament and the first it won.

The listed attendance for the first NCAA championship game in 1982 is exactly 1,000, which makes you think they may have been rounding up. There was a full house inside Torero Stadium on Sunday afternoon to watch two teams far from home, not to mention people watching for free from the bluff that sits high above the east end of the stadium.

And it wasn't just here. Seeded second in the bracket, North Carolina had to play a quarterfinal on the road for the first time in 26 such games. And it had to do it in front of more than 4,000 fans at BYU, a program not yet 20 years old but which now sets the standard for attendance nationally.

That was the backdrop against which North Carolina players watched a BYU player slot a ball toward an open net in overtime, only to watch Tar Heels reserve Brooke Elby come out of nowhere to slide in and save the ball off the line.

And that was all before Friday's overtime win against top-ranked Stanford.

This team has the North Carolina name across its chest, and it has its share of genuinely special players like Amber Brooks, Dunn, Ohai and Murray. But it didn't have Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly or any of the other legends who built the dynasty, at least not beyond the patches on the shoulders of some jerseys -- the Tar Heels had so many retired numbers they had to bring them back into circulation a few years ago, adorning the jerseys bearing those numbers with the names of the corresponding legend.

Team players

The depth it used to wear down Penn State in the final came from walk-ons like Ball, Gardner and Gay, and from players like Maria Lubrano, a sixth-year senior who endured two hip surgeries among other ailments to come back this season and start and play major minutes. Like most players on the roster, she could have gone elsewhere and played more, gotten more scholarship money. Instead she learned from those who beat her out.

"What I tried to do was learn as much as I could for them, and what I learned is that they all work so darn hard, no matter how good they are," Lubrano said. "And they always put the team first. When I was able to grasp that and put in my hard work and always put the team first, yes, I would have liked to play every minute, but I wanted what was best for my team."

That is how the dynasty persists.

Sitting at the podium answering questions after the game, Dunn, Murray and Ohai -- the first perhaps the player of the entire run of the tournament and the latter two the official recipients of most outstanding player on defense and offense, respectively, in the College Cup -- all said they considered other schools in the recruiting process. If it ever did, North Carolina no longer gets every star recruit.

Players like Nairn and Hayes think they can win titles elsewhere, and they're right. But there is still something about the program in Chapel Hill.

"I made a trip out, kind of last minute, and as soon as I met Anson and was basically on campus, I knew I wanted to go there, and I committed on my visit," Ohai said. "I think this coach right here, I mean, his record speaks for itself and just personally, he truly cares about his players and we truly care about him."

There were tears in the first news conference when the emotions of the moment got to Nairn. There were tears here, too, Ohai briefly derailed.

"I'm just so thankful to be able to play for him," she finished.

It has never been more difficult to be North Carolina. It has never been more impressive for a team to be just that.

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