[NORTH CAROLINA: SA Preseason #1] Last year's NCAA Division I title -- its 22nd national championship -- was improbable. This year, North Carolina, as it has so many times before, is the undisputed favorite to win the NCAA Division I championship and is No. 1 in the Soccer America Women's Top 25 rankings.
The season ended with a 4-1 win over Penn State in the Women's Cup final, but the Tar Heels looked to be going nowhere four weeks earlier when they were ousted by Virginia from the ACC Tournament without putting a shot on goal -- a first in the storied Carolina history.
In the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina was fortunate to get past Baylor in the round of 16 on penalty kicks and then beat BYU, 2-1, in overtime in the quarterfinals -- but not before an incredible clearance off the line from sophomore Brooke Elby in the first overtime kept it alive.
Carolina returns Soccer America Player of the Year Crystal Dunn, who broke into the U.S. national team in the offseason, Kealia Ohai, the 2012 Women's College Cup Most Outstanding Offensive Player, and Summer Green, who split time between Carolina and the U.S. U-17 World Cup team in 2012.
Defenders Hanna Gardner and Satara Murray, who broke open a tight game against Penn State in the final with second-half goals, return on the backline along with Caitlin Ball. Unlike Dunn, Ohai and Green, all nationally recognized stars at a young age, Ball and Gardner were walk-ons.
Anson Dorrance welcomes back right starters in all, plus defender Megan Brigman, a starter in 2010 and 2011 who broke her leg four minutes into the 2012 season and Bryane Heaberlin, who started on the 2012 U.S. Under-20 World Cup championship team with Dunn and Ohai and backed up Adelaide Gay in goal last season.
The 13-member recruiting class for the 2013 season includes transfer Alexa Newfield, an All-SEC choice with Georgia in 2010 and 2011. Freshmen include Joanna Boyles, Emily Bruder and Amber Munerlyn, who were all members of the 2012 U.S. U-17 World Cup with Green.
The Tar Heels have all the elements to defend their title but they'll have to earn it, Their schedule includes seven teams ranked in the SA Preseason Top 25, beginning with No. 9 Santa Clara in Friday's opener at Virginia's Kloeckner Classic.