Kip Coons, TSN Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It’s been more than two decades since there have been this many question marks about UNC women’s soccer.
In 1995, the Tar Heels returned only three starters and saw their nine-year run of NCAA championships end.
This year the Tar Heels, who have played in all 36 NCAA tournaments and won the title 21 times, are coming off their earliest NCAA exit ever, a second-round 1-0 loss to Texas A&M.
Another first: No Tar Heel was picked for the preseason All-ACC team.
And yet the Tar Heels are picked ninth nationally and fourth in the league in preseason coaches’ polls, so nobody is underestimating them.
Anson Dorrance, the only coach in the program’s storied history, must replace his entire forward line and top three scorers – seniors Alexa Newfield and Summer Green and junior Jessie Scarpa, who will miss the season while playing for the U.S. U-20 World Cup team.
Scarpa isn’t the only absentee because of the U-20 team call.
Incoming freshman defender Taylor Otto, a CASL club product from Apex, also will miss the season.
She entered school in January, practiced with the UNC team last spring and would have been a likely starter on defense.
Three other key players are gone in midfielder Katie Bowen, central defender Paige Nielsen and goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin.
A seven-player recruiting class, ranked third in the nation, should provide some immediate help in forwards Zoe Redei (3), Bridgette Andrzejenski (18) and Madison Schultz (20), who are ranked among the top 20 recruits nationally.
Freshman Morgan Goff of Triton High in Dunn and senior Sarah Ashley Firstenberg are also possibilities up front.
Emily Bruder would have been a candidate here as well, but she graduated in three years and will play for Colorado, where she is a graduate student.
If graduation losses and World Cup weren’t enough, UNC is still feeling the rash of ACL injuries from last season.
In the midfield, seniors Darcy McFarlane and Cameron Castleberry and sophomore Dorian Bailey appear fully recovered, but senior Joanna Boyles and sophomore Kate Morris will redshirt.
Boyles is a major loss in the center midfield, where she was the team’s fourth-leading scorer.
Juniors Annie Kingman, Abby Elinsky, Megan Buckingham and Alex Kimball will have to take up a lot of the slack.
Kimball is the top scorer back with three goals and two assists.
Redshirt senior Hanna Gardner, a two-year starter as an outside defender, will move to the middle this fall.
She started for two years, but saw limited action last year after knee surgery.
Redshirt junior Maya Worth and sophomore Julia Ashley return at their outside defender spots, although Ashley is also a possibility in the middle when the Tar Heels shift from their 3-4-3 to a four-player back line.
So is redshirt junior Maggie Bill, who started 10 games two years ago and was a standout on UNC’s NCAA championship lacrosse team.
Sophomore Ru Mucherera is also seeing time as a left back in the four-player set and shows great instinct getting forward in the attack.
Redshirt senior Lindsey Harris, who split time last year, will be the regular goalkeeper, but sophomore Samantha Leshnak, who had been in camp with the U.S. U-20 team, figures to see action as well.
Dorrance on the Tar Heels:
“Obviously we’re going to have to reconstruct some things. (Replacing scorers) was a huge concern, but it was addressed with a very aggressive freshman class. I think we’re going to be a handful.”
Quick Notes – 2016 UNC Tar Heels
Coach: Anson Dorrance (792-63-32 in 37 years, all at UNC)
2015 record: 15-6-1, 7-3-0 ACC)
Finish: T-3rd ACC, advanced to NCAA 2nd round
Starters returning: 5
Preseason ranking: No. 9
Key losses: F Alexa Newfield 11-3-25, F Jessie Scarpa 8-8-24, F Summer Green 7-3-17, M Joanna Boyles (4-4-12), M-D Katie Bowen (1-1-3), F Emily Bruder 2-1-5, D Paige Nielsen 0-1-1, GK Bryane Heaberlin (9-2-0, 0.55 GAA)
Key returnees: So. M Dorian Bailey 2-3-7, Sr. M Cameron Castleberry 1-4-6, Sr. M Darcy McFarlane 0-2-2, R-Sr. D Hanna Gardner 0-1-1, R-Jr. D Maya Worth 0-0-0, So. D Julia Ashley (0-3-3), R-Sr. GK Lindsey Harris 6-3-1, 0.69 GAA.
Top newcomers: F Zoe Redei, F Bridgette Andrzejenski, F Madison Schultz, F Morgan Goff, F Kasey Parker
Won’t play: Boston College, Duke (in ACC), Louisville