Woods Charter Wolves’ record-holder Isabel Pearce wraps up collegiate career at UNCG

Posted 4/14/21

GREENSBORO — A little less than four years ago, on the pitch at Woods Charter, the NCHSAA record for most career goals was shattered.

Competing in the third round of the 1A playoffs, Isabel …

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Woods Charter Wolves’ record-holder Isabel Pearce wraps up collegiate career at UNCG

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Posted

GREENSBORO — A little less than four years ago, on the pitch at Woods Charter, the NCHSAA record for most career goals was shattered.

Competing in the third round of the 1A playoffs, Isabel Pearce — the Wolves’ four-time North Central Athletic Conference player of the year — netted six goals on May 17, 2017, in an 8-0 rout of the East Wake Academy Eagles to advance her team to the state’s Elite Eight as a 10th seed.

Entering that afternoon, she was tied with the previous record-holder — Carolyn Lindsay of South View — with 217 career goals. She needed very little time to break it, scoring on a rebound header off of her own missed shot attempt just a few minutes into the game; she added five more for a little extra breathing room.

That year, Woods Charter made it to the school’s first-ever Final Four, but dropped a 3-0 contest to the top-seeded Franklin Academy Patriots, the eventual champions, in the semifinals.

Still, the legacy of Pearce, the all-time leader in goals scored for Woods Charter — and the state — was cemented long before she added 16 goals in five games that postseason, bringing her career total to 226.

That was just the icing on the cake.

“Before you even talk about what she did on the field, she made a commitment to the team,” said Graeme Stewart, head coach of Woods Charter women’s soccer. “She was at every practice, she was the vocal leader and when she walked on the field and crossed that line, she gave everything she had for this team. She took knocks, she stayed out and she kept working.”

During her time in Chapel Hill, Pearce was a Frankenstein’s monster-esque mash-up of skill, talent and passion.

She scored goals like it was nobody’s business, left spectators’ jaws on the floor when she’d play outside of Chatham and coached her teammates if they needed either a boost or a pointer.

She was tenacious, physically gifted and — more often than not — overly self-critical.

“She had speed that you can’t buy,” Stewart said. “She had touch that was just as you expect for a top-level player. She would create things out of nothing. … But it was her attitude, it was her discipline. And she was never satisfied. She would score four goals, let’s say, and she’d say, ‘Well, I missed three.’ And she kept pushing herself. She was so driven.”

Fast forward to two weeks ago, on April 3, when Pearce played her last game as a Spartan at UNC-Greensboro in front of a COVID-reduced crowd of 167 that included Stewart.

UNCG lost to the conference-leading Samford Bulldogs that Saturday, 2-0, narrowly keeping them out of the four-team Southern Conference tournament. That loss, while not the ideal way to end her college career, doesn’t put a damper on Pearce’s unbelievable eight-year run throughout high school and college.

‘She’d start for your school’

Pearce’s parents threw her into soccer when she was 6 years old, primarily because all of her siblings — including her brother, Elliott, who now works as a Woods Charter assistant coach — each played.

To make carpooling easier, Pearce played on the same teams as her older siblings, forcing her to improve from a young age if she wanted any shot at competing with them.

“I used to play in age groups that were above my own because my sister was older than me,” Pearce said. “So I played with boys, I played in higher age groups and I just, not knowingly, tried to be the very best that I could be and that meant playing against people that were way better than me.”

After spending some time in the Chatham Soccer League, she signed up to play for the Triangle United Soccer Association (TUSA) in middle school to improve upon her game in ways she hadn’t been able to in other leagues.

“I was really good at the physical aspect of soccer because I played in age groups above my own, but then I really was missing this technical, strategic piece,” Pearce said. “Being on that team helped me get to the same level (my teammates) were at and it helped show me that I could play D-I college soccer.”

At first, Pearce said she was intimidated by the players on her TUSA team, since some of them were talented enough to end up committing to UNC-Chapel Hill or Duke, while she, a Pittsboro native, was “just some random country girl from a little town.”

In the end, she fit right in. And thrived.

Her time with TUSA — which she’d stay with throughout high school — prepared her to be the player she was at Woods Charter, dominating opponents with speed, drive and quick decision-making.

She worked well alongside Stewart and the rest of the Wolves’ coaching staff, who complemented her style of learning perfectly.

“(Stewart) is an amazing coach and he was super supportive in anything that I did,” Pearce said. “If I didn’t have Graeme telling me to keep my head up and ‘You’ll get the next one’ and ‘You’re doing really good,’ just someone supporting me all of the time, I don’t think I would have been able to do the things that I did because I would have been so much harsher on myself.”

The records she broke — including the career goals record (226) and the single-season goals record (80 in 2017, her senior season) — was indicative of all she’d learned from her siblings, her coaches and her teammates, which she is quick to describe as one of her favorite parts about playing soccer.

When the Wolves made it to the Final Four in 2017, despite not winning the state title, it was evident that the program Stewart was building had a bright future. And that Pearce — along with some of her other teammates — was pretty darn good.

Pearce recalled that they had just 14 players try out that year, some of which weren’t able to make it to all of the practices and games because of outside commitments. She’s still impressed by what they were able to accomplish.

“You think of this little high school that has like 200 or so students and you think of all the 1A schools in North Carolina and how we were in the top four of all those schools,” Pearce said. “It was really nice to see all of my teammates be super happy just to make it that far, especially with a limited amount of players.”

From there, Pearce would go on to play in two major soccer showcases, including the Clash of the Carolinas — an annual contest between North and South Carolina — and N.C.’s East-West All-Star Game, a battle between the eastern and western parts of the state.

When she stepped onto the field in both cases, players and coaches were impressed with the fact that she came from a smaller school. Pearce said she felt like she was helping break the stereotype that 1A players can’t compete with larger classifications.

“She went out there in the Clash of the Carolinas in Greensboro and she turned the game around for North Carolina,” Stewart said. “Everybody’s like, ‘Holy s--t. Who’s this girl?’ Like yeah, she plays 1A. She’s not bad, is she? She’d start for your school.”

‘I love it here’

After what Pearce described as a “stressful” recruiting process — thanks in part to Spartans’ assistant coach Jeff Gross keeping in contact with her for years — she ended up in Greensboro, where she’s spent the last four years playing soccer and following a rigorous pre-med academic track.

“I really felt a lot of pressure to go somewhere and do something because I didn’t want to hang up my cleats,” Pearce said. But since Jeff kept up with me and talked to the head coach about me, I was able to make the decision to come here and it was for the best and I love it here.”

She’s embraced a much different role at UNCG, shifting from a dominant scorer with the Wolves to a supportive teammate with the Spartans.

Going from high school to college, playing alongside some of the best players from across the country, there simply isn’t enough playing time to go around when you have a squad of more than 25 players. Compare that to the 14 on Pearce’s senior-year Woods Charter team and it becomes easy to see why she averaged a little over 17 minutes per game in her senior season.

She didn’t score any goals in college, but she spent plenty of time focused on becoming the best teammate she could.

“I think everyone would want to score goals in college soccer, and not doing it definitely gave me an unusual feeling,” Pearce wrote in an email. “It was really hard on my self confidence but I stayed positive by thinking of all the other important roles I have on my team other than scoring: challenging my teammates every day in practices, giving compliments but also critiquing them so that they can get better, setting the tone for intensity at practices, leading by example in the weight room by pushing myself and completing all the reps and sets, etc.”

And despite the lack of scoring opportunities, her UNCG career was undoubtedly a success.

In her first two years at UNCG, Pearce experienced trips to the NCAA Tournament, including a matchup against Duke, the third-ranked team in the nation, in the first round of the 2017 tournament.

While they lost both first-round games, being able to win the Southern Conference Tournament to earn an NCAA bid is an accomplishment in itself.

“I got to NCAAs twice and that was kind of like my soccer highlight of being here at UNCG,” Pearce said. “A lot of people have never heard of UNCG women’s soccer, so having our name out there, playing against Duke, was super big for our school and our women’s soccer program.”

As her Spartan career comes to a close, Pearce said she’ll miss her teammates the most. Whether they’re going out to eat, studying at a local coffee shop or putting in extra reps on the field, they never seem to be alone without one another.

She’ll graduate from UNCG in May with a degree in biology and minors in chemistry and psychology, aiming to take a break to study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before applying to medical schools. She’s wanted to be a surgeon of some kind since she was in high school, but that could change if she “finds something even cooler” in the medical field, she said, laughing.

She finishes her competitive soccer career with a stellar resume, including:

• holder of two NCHSAA scoring records

• four-time North Central Athletic 1A Conference Player of the Year

• four-time North Carolina Soccer Coaches Association (NCSCA) all-region and all-state player

• South Atlantic Premier League champion (2014, TUSA)

As is the case with many former players, including her brother, she also hopes to coach at Woods Charter as soon as next season, helping out in whatever capacity Stewart will let her.

“They prepared me for college … so I feel that there’s kind of this duty for me to give back to the community and still support it,” Pearce said. “That’s probably why my brother is there now and it’s most likely a reason why I will be going back to help enhance the program because it gave so much to me.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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