The challenge was thrown down to Madison Schultz: Get to work, or get used to the bench.
So Schultz strapped on her work boots, and her labors helped the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team march all the way to the national championship game.
The Edmonds-Woodway High School product played a key role in the Tar Heels’ run to finishing as national runners-up, and it was largely due to her positive response to some tough love.
“I think she made a renewed commitment this year,” legendary North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said. “She got a little fitter as the season wore on by working hard in practice, she showed a commitment to defense, and before you knew it she was on the field making things happen.”
Schultz, who was The Herald’s Girls Soccer Player of the Year in 2014 as a junior at Edmonds-Woodway, was a key cog in North Carolina’s progress through the NCAA tournament. The junior started all six of the Tar Heels’ tournament games as the left-sided forward in a three-forward formation. In those six games she doled out two assists and also was involved in several other key moments as North Carolina reached the Dec. 2 title game, where its run finally came to an end with a 1-0 loss to Florida State.
“It’s very validating to make it to the final four, then to be in the last two standing is awesome,” Schultz said. “There’s disappointment. You come to Carolina to be a part of history. We win national championships, and when you don’t achieve that and come so close, it’s nothing but heartbreak. But I adored my teammates this year, and it was a tremendous year. Even though we lost, I had a great time.”
Yet when the season began there was no guarantee Schultz would have the chance to contribute in the manner she did.
Schultz is one of the best female soccer players ever to come out of Snohomish County, an offensive marvel who earned a scholarship with the most successful women’s soccer program in the country. She had a spectacular finish to her freshman season in 2016, scoring five game-winning goals down the stretch, including three in the NCAA tournament as the Tar Heels reached the national semifinals. Big things were predicted for the remainder of her college career.
But Schultz took a step backward as a sophomore, and at the start of this season Dorrance was blunt in his assessment of Schultz on the team’s website:
“Madison Schultz technically and tactically is one of the best players on our roster,” the quote reads. “As she solves her fitness conundrum it will dictate her role on the team. If she had the will of a Julia Ashley she would be one of the best players in the country. Her challenge is to have her self-discipline catch up with her technical and tactical quality.”
In short, Dorrance wanted Schultz to work harder.
“The challenge for any attacking person is to commit to defending,” Dorrance said. “If you’re a great attacking personality on a youth team, there isn’t a guillotine hanging over your head if you don’t defend. Most recruits have the defensive presence of a traffic cone. The challenge is to get them to defend, because one of the things we absolutely demand at Carolina is you have to defend no matter what position you play.”
Instead of pouting, Schultz took the advice to heart.
“He’s not telling you these things because he doesn’t care, he wants nothing but the best for you,” Schultz said. “He’s going to do everything he can to ultimately fix your problems so you can become the best you can be. I’m grateful that I’m lucky enough to have hard conversations with him.”
So Schultz, who made her way in soccer as a goal-scorer, got to work on her defense.
“Here at Carolina we play defense like nobody else,” Schultz said. “We play a high press, we’re ball hunters and it’s awesome. It’s fun, we win the ball high and ultimately we score goals off it. Anson always says it’s a choice, you get to decide if you want to defend. You say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we get it,’ but this year I decided to become a ball hunter, a better defender in a front three, a better defender individually. I made different choices this year and cleaned up my game.”
Schultz’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. She gradually saw her minutes increase, then in the Tar Heels’ final regular season game she earned the start, scoring the game’s only goal in a 1-0 victory over Wake Forest. She remained in the starting lineup from there out.
In the NCAA tournament Schultz found herself regularly involved in positive moments for North Carolina. She had the secondary assist on Carolina’s third goal in its 3-0 victory over Virginia Tech in the sweet 16, beating her marker on the left before serving the ball into the box where it was eventually finished by Dorian Bailey. She had the primary assist on the Tar Heels’ second goal in the quarterfinals against UCLA when her powerful shot from the left was saved into the path of Bailey, and in overtime she smacked the crossbar with a shot before Carolina won in penalty kicks. She nearly won the semifinal game against Georgetown twice, winning a penalty kick in the 85th minute only for Taylor Otto’s attempt to be saved, then having a shot cleared off the goal line in overtime moments before Ashley scored the golden goal.
Schultz is hoping her strong conclusion to the season serves as a springboard into a special senior campaign.
“To be that close in my third season definitely motivates,” Schultz said. “You don’t want to be someone who comes back to Carolina when they’re old and not be able to reminisce about lying in confetti. You want to be that girl who showed everyone what Carolina soccer is all about, that’s why I went 3,000 miles from home because I wanted to play for something bigger than myself.”
And now she’s learned the work it takes to get there.
If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.