CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A trip down south for the Carolina Nike Classic this weekend proved that the women’s soccer team could consider themselves true competition for some of the top teams in the nation.
The Elis fell, 1-0, to No. 2 University of North Carolina on Sunday, in the first-ever meeting between the Bulldogs and the Tar Heels. The defeat came on the heels of Yale’s season-opener on Friday, a 1-0 loss at the hands of No. 12 Duke. For the unranked Bulldogs, keeping within a single goal of two top-15 teams was a major accomplishment.
“I’m so proud of my team right now,” head coach Rudy Meredith said. “They stepped up big time. To have [UNC] only score one goal against you, you’ve got to be proud.”
While just thinking about facing an 18-time national champion can be enough to unsettle most teams, Yale was anything but intimidated by the Tar Heels’ reputation as the premier program in collegiate women’s soccer.
“We had a game plan that we stuck to,” Meredith said. “A lot of teams just sit back against them, but we decided to go after them and be aggressive. It was a great game for our program, a big step in the right direction.”
Yale’s fearless attitude and a tenacious defense, led by captain Eleni Benson ’06 and Hayley Zevenbergen ’09, kept the Tar Heels scoreless for over 80 minutes. The Elis held up well in a very physical match — play was interrupted 24 times for fouls and twice for yellow cards, both given to UNC.
“This game rewards you for playing with huge hearts,” UNC head coach Anson Dorrance said. “I just credit their mentality. They made it very difficult for us to play.”
UNC, however, outshot the Bulldogs 25-8, and finally found the net when Tar Heel forward Jaime Gilbert snuck behind the Yale defense and slipped the ball past goaltender Susan Starr ’09 at 80:28. Midfielder Lori Chalupny and forward Heather O’Reilly assisted Gilbert on the play.
Yale’s best chance to score came with just under three minutes left in the game. Midfielder Crystal Howser ’09 took a direct kick from about 25 yards out, but UNC goaltender Aly Winget deflected the shot. Howser picked up her own rebound, but could not find the goal on her second shot either, and the Tar Heel defense cleared the ball out of their half of the field.
On Friday night, the Bulldogs fell to Duke on a goal scored following a controversial call with about 10 minutes left to play in the first half. Eli defender April Siuda ’06 was called for a dangerous play about six yards from the goal after she dove in front of the ball to halt a Blue Devil run. Duke midfielder Carmen Bognanno set up Darby Kroyer on the resulting indirect kick, and Kroyer lofted the ball over the Eli defense.
“A win would have been nice, but I thought their goal was a bad call,” Benson said. “But we didn’t give up after, which was important.”
Opening against Duke and UNC did not give the Elis a chance to ease into their season. The two nationally-ranked teams were the toughest opponents the Bulldogs will face this fall, forcing Yale to come out with the skill and intensity levels expected near the end of the season, when teams start to gear up for the NCAA tournament.
“I think in terms of gauging where we stand, it was a really fantastic weekend,” midfielder Christina Huang ’06 said. “It was a really good tournament to prepare us for Maryland and Princeton and I’m sure we can beat them.”
Despite the losses, it is evident that the Elis can be expected to consistently challenge some of the best teams in the nation this season. Duke head coach Robbie Church already anticipated a repeat NCAA tournament appearance for the Bulldogs.
“They’re well-organized and well-coached,” Church said. “They’re a very dangerous team. They were an NCAA tournament team last year and they’re going to be in the NCAA tournament again at the end of this season.”