Is this UNC’s best athletics program ever? Tar Heels on verge of record-breaking feat

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North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham began the academic year in August warning of budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic, asking employees to take furloughs and some of his coaches to take pay cuts.

With COVID-19 protocols casting a cloud of uncertainty over the upcoming seasons, it all felt so heavy and a bit deflating at the time. Cunningham is ending the school year with a very different feeling, as the Tar Heels are on the verge of having their most successful year ever as an athletic department.

“I absolutely believe that the more good things happen, the more good things you expect to happen,” Cunningham told The News & Observer. “Certainly you want to win every time you take the field, but what I find to be so thrilling right now is the excitement that these students have created for themselves, for their teammates for the coaches in the community, whether or not we can win championships.”

Six teams are currently pursuing national titles in NCAA tournaments beginning with women’s soccer Thursday in the College Cup semifinals against Santa Clara. Men’s soccer will play their College Cup semifinal on Friday against Marshall.

The women’s tennis team is the No. 1 seed and undefeated as it takes on No. 16 seed California on Sunday in the Round of 16. Men’s tennis is the No. 6 seed and takes on No. 11 seed Georgia on Monday in the Round of 16. Both women’s and men’s tennis already won Intercollegiate Tennis Association national titles this year.

Both men’s and women’s lacrosse begin their respective NCAA tournaments as the No. 1 overall seeds. The men’s team plays Monmouth on Saturday in the first round. The women’s team has a first-round bye and will face the Johns Hopkins-James Madison winner on Sunday.

“It’s the coaches, it’s the attitude, it’s the support that we get, it’s an exciting time,” UNC field hockey coach Karen Shelton told The N&O. “It’s been building, maybe this is going to be the crescendo, but I think that with the leadership that we have in place, it’s a special university.”

Soccer teams make the College Cup

Shelton guided field hockey to its ninth national championship and its third consecutive with a 4-3 overtime win over Michigan on Sunday in a game held on campus. It was one of the fall championships the NCAA moved to the spring due to pandemic concerns.

The College Cup soccer championships also were moved, which is why North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance has had his most challenging season ever. The Heels lost essentially six starters — two of which departed in January after being picked in the NWSL draft — that he thought he’d have a year ago.

The Heels are the No. 2 seed in the tournament, and junior Brianna Pinto was just named a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, which is essentially college soccer’s Player of the Year award. But they don’t have any seniors in their lineup and are mainly relying on freshmen and sophomores. If they can win two games and win the program’s 22nd national championship, Dorrance said it will be their greatest.

“I have told my kids if they win it this year, it’ll be one of the greatest achievements in college sports of all time,” Dorrance said. “Because are you kidding me? Are you kidding me ... in light of who we lost this could be extraordinary and I’ve shared that with my kids. I am so proud of them. And I am asking every one of them to write themselves into women’s soccer history.”

Men’s soccer is the only true underdog of the bunch. The Tar Heels were not among the 16 seeds in the tournament, but they knocked off No. 4 Stanford and No. 5 Wake Forest to reach the College Cup.

Carlos Somoano, UNC’s men’s soccer coach, said being around other “championship minds and coaches” has helped the department as a whole create winning culture.

“It may be osmosis,” Somoano said. “... I do think that it’s contagious. I do think that contributes to a culture of success. So I think we’re better because of it 100 percent.”

Tar Heels NCAA titles

The most NCAA championships UNC has won within the same academic year is three when men’s basketball, women’s soccer and men’s lacrosse all won in 1982. In most years, the department’s success as a whole would primarily depend on, or at least be associated with, men’s basketball and football, the revenue giants for the athletic department.

Football did appear in the Orange Bowl for the first time in program history. Men’s basketball had an uninspiring season that ended with a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament and coach Roy Williams announcing his retirement.

Since Cunningham took over in 2011, UNC has won a combined 16 national titles, but he has never experienced a year quite like this regardless of how the six remaining teams fare.

“You know sometimes when things are just rolling along, you tend to take things for granted,” Cunningham said. “And I think this year said, ‘Don’t take things for granted, these opportunities are special.’ And it’s really important that we maintain that.”