The dynasty lives! On Sunday in Chapel Hill, N.C., the longest current unbeaten streak in college sports was extended once again. This latest victorious effort was impelled in large part by Shannon Higgins, a junior from Kent, Wash., who scored three goals to lead the North Carolina women's soccer team to a 4-1 win over North Carolina State and to its sixth NCAA championship in seven years. More about Higgins later. First, let's look at some statistics.
The Tar Heels' triumph pushed their record streak to 70 games. The last time North Carolina, which is 65-0-5 over that span, lost was Nov. 24, 1985, when George Mason defeated the Heels 2-0. The previous record was held by the Penn State men's soccer team, which went 65 games without a loss between 1932 and 1941. In 10 seasons of varsity competition, North Carolina has put together a 182-7-7 record and has out-scored its opponents 566-30 at home.
In short, the UNC women have long been a formidable bunch. During a party for the Final Four teams on Friday, the mother of a Tar Heels player was overheard saying, "How can my daughter look so elegant here tonight, and tomorrow, when she runs on the field, turn into a 105-pound gorilla?"
One reason for the change might have been the strong possibility of a final game between UNC and archrival North Carolina State, which is 20 miles down the road. The Heels had an 8-0-2 record against the Wolfpack, but both ties were played this season, and the Wolfpack "won" the second 4-3 in a penalty shootout. (According to NCAA rules, a game decided by such a shootout is recorded as a tie; the win is only used in computing conference championships.) That semivictory gave N.C. State the ACC title. "We want them," said one UNC player before the final. "We're greedy now. We want it all."
But before the grudge game could take place, both teams had to get through the semifinals on Saturday. The Wolfpack faced Cal, a stylish, cerebral team that was schooled, according to its coach, Jean-Paul Verhees, in the tap-and-run, Clockwork Orange style of his native Netherlands's national team. However, N.C. State, a tough, physical team, played havoc with the Bears' delicate machinery. The Pack scored only once, when midfielder Jill Rutten connected with a cross from eight yards out at 34:20, but that's all it needed.
Next came a meeting between North Carolina and Wisconsin, the mystery side in the Final Four, NO GUTS, NO GLORY! read a Wisconsin player's T-shirt during practice on Friday, and as he watched the Badgers work out, Tar Heels coach Anson Dorrance expressed the common view. "They're going to give us a lot of short passing," he said. "A lot of hustle, a lot of work ethic." What North Carolina encountered, however, was total, unadventurous defense. For almost 75 minutes Wisconsin frustrated the Tar Heels, as wave after wave of their baby-blue-jerseyed attackers broke against the solid red Badgers wall. For much of the time all 11 Wisconsin players were in their own box, and the only danger to the North Carolina defense seemed to lie in the threat of hypothermia from inactivity. But at 74:04 UNC striker Birthe Hegstad finally scored with a header on a corner kick by Higgins.
Now Wisconsin had to attack, and its defense became as porous as cheesecloth. Six minutes and 50 seconds later, Higgins crossed again, this time to forward Stacey Blazo for the score. And with 2:10 left, Higgins struck a third time, converting the penalty shot after Hegstad was tripped in the box.
Verhees predicted that the North Carolina-N.C. State final was "going to be war," and for the first 15 minutes that's exactly what happened. This was Eastern-style women's soccer—aggressive, uncompromising, even intimidating. Every loose ball was fought for, every shot powered. Fetzer Field is narrow, just 60 yards across. Its lack of width and the high crown, a hillock, really, that extends along the center of the field, caused the ball to run fast, thereby compressing the action and encouraging contact. From the start, the game was marked by petty fouls unchecked by the referees, as the teams probed for weaknesses.
At 19:18, Blazo almost scrambled the ball in during a scuffle. Then Hegstad took a shot off a Higgins corner, and the ball rolled, agonizingly, along the goal line before going outside the post. Next, N.C. State nearly scored when the Tar Heels" defense ventured too far upheld and the Wolfpack suddenly found itself with a four-on-one advantage. But instead of passing to one of her open teammates, midfielder Alana Craft decided to go in alone. She shot feebly from the wing, missing a sure goal.
Ten minutes later, at 30:45, N.C. State sweeper Linda Hamilton flipped the ball back to her goalie, Lindsay Bercher, only to have it intercepted by North Carolina midfielder Pam Kalinoski, who chipped it across to Higgins for a close-range shot into the net.
Higgins put the Tar Heels ahead 2-0 on a penalty shot at 57:03. But the Wolfpack suddenly bounced back three minutes and 42 seconds later, when the referees, who had been officiating almost casually, called a penalty against UNC and forward Charmaine Hooper converted the shot. The suspense ended, however, as soon as Higgins scored her third goal, a 24-yard shot from an indirect free kick that gave her the first hat trick ever in an NCAA women's final.
With one minute and 45 seconds to play, Blazo wrapped up the game for the Tar Heels with a breakaway goal. But before that, the 4,000-plus spectators saw Kalinoski fall to the ground after being elbowed in the left eye on an off-the-ball foul. She was taken to the school infirmary with a possible minor orbital fracture; Hooper, the culprit by consensus, was booed at the awards ceremony.
It was a tough ending, but women's collegiate soccer seems to be getting tougher all the time. Who better to sum up Sunday's game than the cool Hegstad? "I wanted revenge," she said, "and I got it. Now I feel good."
Higgins, dribbling by Hamilton (8), was unstoppable in the final.
Higgins's penalty shot put the Tar Heels ahead to stay.
Dorrance trapped the Badgers in the semis, though their tactics baffled him at first.
The relentless Hegstad (left) got her revenge in the end.