Julia Ashley's goal and attitude have North Carolina a win away from another College Cup

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Julia Ashley, left, celebrates her goal that sent North Carolina into the national championship game.

CARY, N.C. -- Shortly before she scored the double-overtime goal that sent North Carolina to the national championship game, Julia Ashley raced past weary Georgetown players in the dying minutes of regulation and arrived at an opportunity to end the game then and there.

The ball at her feet and the goal in front of her, she passed. Passed on a shot, passed the ball.

The chance evaporated.

Flash forward. Minutes before she again sprinted past everyone to end a game in which she had already run countless miles, Ashley had enough energy to engage the Georgetown fans. After the loudest group of fans complained at full volume about her position for a throw-in, Ashley looked toward them and sarcastically gestured for their approval before her throw.

One of those moments was in character for one of North Carolina's best players this season.

As a hint, it wasn't the moment when Ashley looked something less than sure of herself.

North Carolina wouldn't have reached the College Cup if Ashley had many such moments this season. It wouldn't be playing familiar foil Florida State for a national championship, courtesy of Ashley's golden goal in the 109th minute against the Hoyas, if she shrank from challenges.

North Carolina wouldn't be what it is without Ashley. Not tactically. Not emotionally. And there is no greater challenge for the Tar Heels these days than to be comfortable with their own identity.

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"What I love about this group," coach Anson Dorrance said Friday as he sat next to captains Ashley and Taylor Otto after the win, "is I haven't done anything. They are their own leaders. They guide the team. They're passionate about what we're trying to do this year.

"So we just let them take the team over."

It isn't easy for any team to be what North Carolina once was in college soccer. After his team ended Stanford's 45-game unbeaten streak in Friday's second semifinal, Florida State coach Mark Krikorian suggested it boggled the mind that a program could even run off such a streak in the current college landscape. There are bulwarks on both coasts: The ACC and Pac-12 regularly producing champions, and the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC grow stronger by the year.

But it is even harder for North Carolina to be what North Carolina once was. Stanford's streak was the longest in Division I history for any program save the Tar Heels. It would barely crack the top five streaks in Chapel Hill. It wasn't even half as long as the longest such streak.

That's just the way history works in women's soccer. There is North Carolina, which will try to win its 22nd NCAA championship Sunday, and there is everyone else. North Carolina got there first under Dorrance. It set the standard for the sport. It won championships and filled the U.S. national team before schools like Florida State even deigned to field varsity teams.

Yet times change. College soccer is no longer North Carolina and everyone else. The pressure and waves of substitutes that once grounded all challengers into submission no longer guarantee success against opponents as comfortable on the ball as Florida State, Stanford, UCLA, USC or Virginia -- or indeed Georgetown for much of Friday night. The trophies no longer guarantee that every recruit wants to come to Chapel Hill ahead of any other school.

Unbeaten in the ACC this season and in the College Cup for the second time in three years, North Carolina is still among the very select few programs in the top tier. It just isn't its own tier.

All of which means that to be successful, North Carolina can't worry about being North Carolina.

It has to be itself. No player in the country is better at that than Ashley. That's a good start.

There is a tactical component to this. North Carolina was for years as easily associated with a 3-4-3 formation as Oklahoma football once was with the wishbone. It wasn't just a tactic; it was the identity. Used sparingly by others who lacked the depth and talent to pull off what can be a high-risk defensive alignment, the formation best allowed the Tar Heels to pressure opponents.

But without the necessary flank depth in midfield, and with two potentially special outside backs in Ashley and Emily Fox, the Tar Heels switched this season to four defenders in a 4-3-3.

What does that slight shift in spacing mean on the field? Well, most notably it meant Ashley and Fox charging down opposite sidelines for much of Friday's game against Georgetown. With four defenders, the two widest defenders become potential offensive weapons. Ashley is now North Carolina's most prolific scorer this season, with six goals and 10 assists from outside back.

"That was the big problem for us tonight," Hoyas coach Dave Nolan said. "Both their fullbacks, Julia Ashley and Emily Fox, are two very good players. That took a lot from [Georgetown's wide forwards] because they had to work so hard to deal with them. We were trying to keep their fullbacks home with our attacking play, but Carolina is a pretty athletic team. They put you under pressure, and there is such a confidence from both of their fullbacks just to bomb forward."

Indeed, no one need pity Dorrance for a talent drain in Chapel Hill.

Even putting aside injured English youth international Alessia Russo, in Fox, Otto and Brianna Pinto alone, the Tar Heels have three players who are likely to play for their country more than a few times. Fox already got a start on that with two appearances for the U.S. last month (which meant she missed Florida State's 3-2 win against North Carolina in the ACC tournament). Oddly left off the all-ACC first team, Ashley, too, has a future in the pro game and perhaps beyond.

But in a college soccer world of increasingly small margins, Ashley's value goes beyond tactics to identity.

North Carolina is playing for a title not just because it adjusted its system, but because it has a collection of players who hold themselves to the same standards as previous generations of Tar Heels without measuring their worth against the accomplishments of those past teams.

Like the senior who is very much from New Jersey and very willing to speak her mind.

Sometimes I'm not going to be everyone's best friend on the team. But I'm going to hold everyone to a high standard.
Julia Ashley

"You can't really care what everyone thinks," Ashley said. "Sometimes I'm not going to be everyone's best friend on the team. But I'm going to hold everyone to a high standard. And I want the best for everyone on our team, so there's never a [malicious] intent for what I have to say. I'd pretty much say it's [her personality] on and off the field. I'm pretty consistent in life.

"Good and bad thing, maybe."

So, yes, when the Georgetown fans gave her a hard time after nearly two hours of running up and down the field, she didn't shy away from clapping back.

"I guess they were frustrated that I was inching up," Ashley said with a grin. "So I continued to inch up."

More important, she didn't waver given a second chance to win the game. Ashley said that she never really thought about taking a shot on her run forward late in regulation, when she sprinted past a defender on the right side, gathered in a pass from Becca Andrzejewski as she charged into the 18-yard box, but then tried to pass the ball back across the middle. The shake of the head and roll of the eyes visible after the play was because the pass was too hesitant.

"I was trying to play it across, and I think I was overthinking it," Ashley said. "I played it so softly that it really didn't go anywhere. I needed to hit that with a lot more pace. The angle, I probably could have shot from that angle, but I thought the best idea was to go across."

Whether or not passing was the best choice, what bothered her was she didn't follow through on her choice. There was no such hesitation almost half an hour of game time and likely several miles later, when she raced down the middle of the field and scored the goal to earn another game.

This North Carolina team will never be the North Carolina of old. No team can be.

But this team is one afternoon away from winning a national championship.

That's a pretty good identity.

"The leadership force on this team right now ... it's been a wonderful ride for me because I'm just hanging with them," Dorrance said. "And it's so much fun."

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