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After College Cup defeat, UNC’s Julia Ashley eyes NWSL Draft

North Carolina's Julia Ashley dribbles up the field against Florida State in the 2018 College Cup Final on Dec. 2, 2018 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — It’s unlikely this past Sunday will be the last time Julia Ashley steps onto the turf at WakeMed Soccer Park.

She walked off it in defeat for the last time as a college player that afternoon, her North Carolina Tar Heels falling 1-0 to ACC rival Florida State in the NCAA Women’s College Cup final. A goal in the 60th minute from the Seminoles’ forward Dallas Dorosy led to victory.

But WakeMed Soccer Park is also home to the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League. While Sunday’s loss was painful for Ashley and her teammates, after the match she quickly began to look forward to the next phase of her soccer career.

“I’m definitely going to enter the (NWSL) draft. I think I’d like to play here (in the United States) for sure,” Ashley said during postgame interviews, adding that she still needs to talk to UNC head coach Anson Dorrance more about the process. “I’ve really been focused on this season and just focused on my team and trying to do the best I can so I can get a good opportunity after college.”

The 2019 NWSL Draft will be held Jan. 10 in Chicago. The Chicago Red Stars hold the top pick, followed by back-to-back picks for Sky Blue FC. The Washington Spirit and the Courage will pick fourth and fifth, respectively.

North Carolina has vaulted 79 college players into the professional ranks — and Ashley could be the 80th.

A 5-foot-8 senior from Verona, N.J., she has proved to be a versatile defender and one of college soccer’s top players. Ashley has played at a high level in both three- and four-back formations. She’s been a starter since her freshman season and has three times landed on All-ACC team. Ashley was also voted to the All-Tournament Team following the College Cup.

Entering her senior year, she was named to the watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy, an award given to the best player in college soccer. A winner hasn’t been announced yet for 2018, but Ashley makes a strong case. She anchored a North Carolina team that lost just four games all year and outscored its opponents 14-4 in the NCAA tournament.

Ashley led the Tar Heels in assists with 10 and tied for the team-lead in goals scored with six. Four of those were game-winners, with the final goal coming in the 108th minute of the Tar Heels’ national semifinal win over Georgetown.

“That was a big problem for us. Both of their fullbacks – Julia Ashley and Emily Fox – two very good players,” Georgetown head coach Dave Nolan said. “We were trying to keep them home, but Carolina is a pretty athletic team. There’s such a confidence from both of their fullbacks just to bomb forward.”

It’s not often a right back is the team’s biggest offensive threat, but Florida State must’ve felt that way about Ashley.

“Definitely in the first half, I was being man-marked,” Ashley said. “At halftime, we talked about how (Alex Kimball) and I were both just kind of going for the same ball. Since we knew that I was being man-marked very tight, I was going to try and dive out and she and I were going to switch.”

After getting off three shots — two on goal – against Georgetown, Ashley couldn’t find space for an attempt versus the Seminoles.

While Ashley’s offensive talents can be seen by reading a stat sheet and her defensive expertise can be shown on film, one of her best attributes – her otherworldly endurance – is a bit harder to quantify.

Dorrance said Ashley ran 11 miles in the College Cup quarterfinals against UCLA. She played 108 minutes against Georgetown and then, less than 48 hours later, played a full 90 minutes against Florida State.

In high school, Ashley was also a track-and-field star. As a freshman, she recorded the third fastest mile time in the nation.

“Julia Ashley is the fittest player I’ve ever coached, including my eight-year run (1986-1994) with the U.S. national team,” Dorrance said. “I would guess, right now, she might be the fittest female soccer player in the world. That’s how fit she is.”

Dorrance also spoke highly of Ashley’s leadership skills over the course of the tournament. She’s been a captain for two consecutive seasons.

“You can’t really care what everyone thinks. Sometimes I’m not going to be everyone’s best friend on the team, but I am going to hold everyone to a high standard,” Ashley said. “I want what’s best for everyone on our team. There’s never a malintent for what I have to say. It’s like that off the field too. I’m kind of consistent in life.”

Over her four years on the Tar Heels’ back line, North Carolina won 60 games and captured an ACC title in 2017.

Concerning the draft and turning pro, there may not be much for Dorrance and Ashley to discuss. The 67-year-old coach believes she’s a lock to be selected in the first round.

“She’s going to get drafted in the top five,” Dorrance said. “The team that’s wise enough to draft her, I predict she’ll end up starting in the NWSL in her freshman season, which is rare these days for a kid coming out of college. But if the right team drafts her, she’ll be on the field as a starter.”

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