North Carolina forward Paige Nielsen used to watch the final four when she was younger and dream of being part of a national championship team.
It became reality Sunday, and the freshman from Lincoln Southeast still can't believe it.
“I'm honestly dumbfounded because it's so amazing,'' she said Monday. “I'm not sure it's sunk in yet.''
Nielsen competed in 20 matches this fall for the Tar Heels, starting three. She played eight minutes in the first half in Sunday's 4-1 victory over No. 6 Penn State and got off one shot.
She had two goals and one assist during the team's 15-5-3 season and said her game has gotten much faster after playing with and against the best players in the country.
It wasn't just talent that won it on Sunday for North Carolina, though.
“Honestly, it was heart. We are a talented team — when we play our best we know we can beat anyone,'' she said. “Heart in the end won it for us. It was tied 1-1 at halftime. In the second half, we just turned it on and we pressured everyone so much. We thought, 'We made it this far, we cannot go out losers.'”
The No. 14 Tar Heels were more aggressive in the second half and had more depth, Nielsen said. They were also playing for coach Anson Dorrance's wife M'Liss, who has been ill and wasn't able to attend the games in San Diego.
“It really showed the family we have on this team. It all came together for our coach and for her,'' Nielsen said. “We played for not only each other and the national championship, but for her.''
Nielsen played club soccer for Toro Bravo and Elite Girls Academy under-19 Maroon squad, coached by Marcus Kelcher. They played a few times in a tournament connected with the final four, and Nielsen saw the Tar Heels in action.
They won their 22nd title on Sunday and Nielsen said that tradition is part of why she chose North Carolina for college.
Although she won five state cups, one USYS Region II championship and one USYS national league championship with her club team, she never won a title in high school.
The Knights were runners-up twice in both soccer and basketball while she was there.
“I was hoping my curse wouldn't come with me for college,'' Nielsen said.
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