North Carolina relying on young stars in title defense

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- On a field against Notre Dame under threatening skies, the new season for the University of North Carolina began in the same manner the previous season ended.

It's fitting that the Tar Heels took the field against an opponent for the first time as defending champions versus the Fighting Irish on Aug. 19, even if the game was an unofficial scrimmage, because there is a distinctly familiar quality to a team that returns nine starters from last year's national title game. But it might be equally fitting that the two teams met under such different preseason circumstances, with substitutions coming on in hockey-style waves and both coaches electing to let the 2-2 score stand after 90 minutes instead of settling the outcome on an increasingly sloppy field soaked by second-half downpours.

For the nation's preseason No. 1, everything is somehow different despite how much remains the same.

The Tar Heels lost just one senior starter from December's championship game, but Heather O'Reilly was far more than just one of 11 equals throughout her career in Chapel Hill. The team's unquestioned leader on the field, O'Reilly guided the Tar Heels to the program's 18th NCAA championship by playing remarkably selfless soccer, pacing a lineup loaded with freshmen in assists instead of goals. Along with fellow senior Libby Guess, who came off the bench in 18 of 28 appearances last season but contributed six goals and 13 assists, O'Reilly was half of a senior partnership that totaled 65 of the team's 263 points.

"We've got to develop a way to score goals," Dorrance said. "Heather O'Reilly graduated, but also the loss of Libby Guess -- I don't think people can appreciate how good Libby Guess was for us. Losing those two attacking personalities is going to make the evolution of our forward lines an interesting thing to study this fall."

It's patently unfair to expect any single player to replace O'Reilly's contributions, on the stat sheet and otherwise. Dorrance already has said numerous times that the midfield needs to inherit some of the burden and produce more scoring opportunities than just those provided by All-American Yael Averbuch. Sophomore Tobin Heath, who wasn't with the team for the scrimmage against Notre Dame while nursing a lingering ankle sprain, is perhaps the most capable untapped scoring prospect in that respect. But all the same, no player holds more individual potential on offense than sophomore forward Casey Nogueira.

Midway through the scrimmage's second half, Nogueira found herself with the ball at her feet in Notre Dame's defensive end and open teammate Sterling Smith lurking a few yards away. The only trouble was a Notre Dame defender occupied the space Nogueira needed to make a conventional pass to Smith's feet. Without any hesitation beyond quickly surveying the situation, she scooped the ball up like a golfer hitting a wedge shot, arcing it over the defender and placing it at Smith's feet. Receiving the gift in open space, Smith found Rachel Givan slicing through the edge of the 18-yard box, and the freshman slid the ball past the keeper for North Carolina's second goal.

On a field littered with some of the best attacking players in the nation, including Hermann Trophy winner Kerri Hanks, it was the kind of instinctive creativity -- seeing a pass slicing behind her earlier in the half, she used her rear end to deflect the ball to a teammate and maintain possession -- that sets Nogueira apart.

"She has every conceivable tool," Dorrance said. "She has this toolbox with absolutely everything in there. Her skills are world-class. She's the prototype of what a youth player should do with the ball when they're young. She understands every nuance of the ball. She can trap anything, she can serve anything, she can strike with both feet for power, serve over distance, she's got great vision; she's just a complete player."

The catch is that minutes before assisting on the goal, Nogueira found herself the recipient of some of her coach's halftime ire after a lackluster opening 45 minutes throughout which she was largely invisible. The star of last year's College Cup, eclipsing even O'Reilly to some degree, Nogueira had a breakout weekend that overshadowed an up-and-down season that included no starts and just two goals before the NCAA Tournament.

"The only thing missing in Casey's game is she has to learn to compete," Dorrance said. "She's such a great player that she can play soccer and still contribute, but there is another gear that she has to establish if she wants to become a collegiate star, but also an international star. … She's got to play the game at a sprint; that's also missing from her game. But everything else is total. Every technical quality and every creative nuance is in her game, and she's just a wonderful player."

The Tar Heels also will be without sophomore Ali Hawkins, a standout holding midfielder in her debut campaign. Hawkins tore her ACL playing with a youth national team during a tour of England this past spring. The only other starter from the title game who won't be on the field for North Carolina is defender Robyn Gayle, who will miss the start of the season while playing for Canada in the World Cup. But fortune often seems to smile on North Carolina, and Dorrance managed to land transfer Allie Long from Penn State.

Talking about Long after the scrimmage against Notre Dame, Dorrance sounded like a boy unwrapping a new Christmas present.

"Allie Long is going to be a huge addition for us, and that has made up for the loss of Ali Hawkins," Dorrance said. "We were certainly trying to fill that spot, and to watch Long play, I mean, the kid is world-class. That is a world-class midfielder. I loved seeing her out there."

If Long is able to step in and fill the role Hawkins excelled in last season and senior center back Jessica Maxwell returns to full health after suffering a broken ankle, the Tar Heels should have the kind of defensive structure to give the attacking players plenty of cover as they adapt to new roles without O'Reilly and Guess. And with youth national standout Ashlyn Harris finally healthy after a serious of injuries, Dorrance has two quality options in goal (the other is junior Anna Rodenbough). How Dorrance decides to split time -- whether he eventually settles on a No. 1 or platoons them by games or even halves, as he did in both games in the College Cup -- is still up for debate.

As represented most dramatically by Nogueira, the Tar Heels possess a blend of invaluable experience and unrealized potential; they are largely the same cast of characters as last year, yet are destined to be very different. What remains to be seen over the next three and a half months is whether that new path leads them to a familiar terminus.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.