North Carolina suffers first-ever loss in home opener
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Think Appalachian State was the only team in the Carolinas to pull off a stunning upset Saturday?
Just look at the South Carolina women's soccer team, which handed powerful North Carolina -- the No. 1 ranked, defending NCAA champions -- its first loss in a home opener in the 29 years of the program.
The 1-0 victory may not have the impact of the Mountaineers 34-32 win at mighty Michigan on Saturday, but in women's soccer circles it rarely gets bigger than beating the Tar Heels.
North Carolina fell to 27-1-1 in home season openers. It had won its past 21 since tying George Mason 3-3 at Fetzer Field on Sept. 1, 1985. For the Tar Heels, it was only their 10th loss at home, where they are 263-10-5.
"You really can't describe how it feels," Gamecocks midfielder Ashley Kirk said. "The coaches were telling us that we've been here before, but we really hadn't been here before."
It was South Carolina's first victory over a team ranked in the top five. The Gamecocks had only once before played the No. 1 team, that time falling to North Carolina 9-1 in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2000.
South Carolina has been slowly building a program since it started in 1995. It has had only one NCAA tournament appearance -- in 1998 -- in its 12 seasons. A year ago, the Gamecocks finished 11-6-5, yet missed out on an NCAA bid in a tournament that eventually ended with North Carolina's 18th college championship.
And this one figured to be just another Tar Heel triumph.
Kirk, though, said the Gamecocks had spent the offseason talking about this moment. "Every time we got up for early workouts, or to run or train, we thought about playing North Carolina," she said. "It pushed us since the end of last year."
South Carolina coach Shelley Smith, starting her seventh season, tried to take some sting out of North Carolina's bite by taking her team to watch the Tar Heel men's team play -- and lose 1-0 to Monmouth for its first season-opening loss in a decade -- on Friday night. "See," Kirk remembered Smith saying, "it is possible to get your eyes on playing well."
The Gamecocks came out fast at Fetzer Field.
Kirk spurred the attack early on and Erin Sullivan took a pass from Samantha Diaz-Matosas that she headed into the back left of the net 15:20 into the game.
Smith was thrilled with the early goal. "But I knew there was a long way to go," she said.
North Carolina pushed the pace in the second half, creating corner kick after corner kick.
The Tar Heels had successive shots in the 55th minute, one crossing just left of the post and the other saved by goalkeeper Lindsay Thorstenson.
North Carolina's Yael Averbuch was open from about 3 yards out, but her shot deflected off the back of Gamecock defender Blakely Mattern.
"That last 20 minutes," Kirk says, "were just crazy."
Still, South Carolina held strong.
The Tar Heels finished with a 12-5 edge in shots on goal and a 12-0 advantage in corner kicks.
South Carolina's Thorstenson had five saves, all of them crucial.
"It was like there was a plate glass in front of their goal," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said.
When the game ended, South Carolina coach Smith said there was a moment of shock and disbelief. Then she swelled with pride for what her players had accomplished. "They worked so hard for this and they deserve it," she said.
What now? Shut down the season?
"No," Smith laughed. "The message that's got to come across is this can boost our confidence, but there's a long season ahead."
Kirk, the Gamecocks' senior midfielder, says the attention has already been overwhelming. Within the first hour, she had a slew of text messages and calls of congratulations.
Teenage girls playing soccer grow up with daydreams of playing for the Tar Heels -- or beating them. "To do this," Kirk says, "is a dream come true."