A North Carolina State of Mind

Brianna Pinto was destined to become the next women’s soccer star for the University of North Carolina.

“The Duke-Carolina rivalry is the best rivalry in sports for a plethora of reasons. First and foremost, the proximity of the campuses makes it a unique situation because rivals live in the same community, but bleed different shades of blue,” Brianna Pinto explained. While she has family connections on both sides of the rivalry, the University of North Carolina star midfielder never considered becoming a Blue Devil. “The former Duke women’s soccer assistant coach, Billy Lesesne, actually lived across the street from me. I’m sure he saw me run out of my front door donning a UNC soccer t-shirt with a soccer ball in hand a fair number of times,” she said. “I think it is safe to say he assumed Carolina is where I would eventually end up, and if that’s the case, I appreciate his belief. In other words, there was no chance I would attend Duke. I always envisioned myself as a Carolina girl continuing the legacy of so many great players that came before me.”

“I have held my allegiance to Carolina my entire life, but I definitely have great respect for Duke, especially as my family members have attended their programs and enjoyed their experiences. My brother, Hassan, is a graduate student at Fuqua Business school and is also a member of the Duke Men’s Soccer team as their starting right back. Similarly, my mom, Meleata Pinto, attended Fuqua from 2009-2011 and it provided her with many valuable experiences.” She added, “My most fond memory of her experience was witnessing how Duke students camp out for Duke-Carolina basketball tickets. Seeing their excitement for the game brew over the course of several weeks was fascinating as well. I have been fortunate to attend several Duke-UNC games at Cameron Indoor in addition to the Dean Dome.”

 

The rivalry is not limited to men’s basketball with both schools also having highly successful women’s soccer programs. “Regarding women’s soccer, playing against Duke has always been something I have dreamt about. It was the coolest feeling to play in our brand new stadium, on Dorrance Field and beat Duke in front of a sold-out crowd. That is what our team lives for. The pressure moments are where we thrive. Duke certainly has a talented women’s soccer program,” Brianna said. “I have played alongside many of their current and former players at various youth national team camps. It is always great to maintain those relationships and keep tabs on everyone’s progress throughout the years. I could list a number of role models that I have from UNC, especially since Anson has manufactured legends of the game for the last 40 years. My favorite role model is Heather O’Reilly because I was able to watch her play on Fetzer Field and follow her career with the U.S. Women’s National Team. It has been an absolute blessing to have her on our sidelines this year because she offers impressive game intelligence and a surplus of experience.

O’Reilly is not the only positive sporting influence in Brianna’s life. As she mentioned, her older brother plays right-back for Duke, her younger brother, Malik, played soccer in high school, and her parents both played college sports at UNC, soccer for her father and softball for her mother. “A lot of people talk about how my brothers and my dad play at an elite level. While they are influential in the majority of my success, my mother is the true hero. She is the most competitive person I know, and she watches all of our games as if she is part of the team herself. She gives me detailed analyses of my performances and motivates me to raise the bar with each opportunity I get to represent UNC or the national team,” she said. “I am proud to follow her footsteps as a UNC student-athlete even though softball did not end up being my calling. My brothers and my dad offer a lot of insight to the game. They critique my every move because they know that paying attention to every detail is a chance to get better and gain an edge on my opponents. Most importantly, we all want to see each other succeed.

“My dad would beg for groups of older men to allow my brothers and I to join in on pickup games, just so we could be exposed to a quicker speed of play at younger ages. This was essential for our development because my dad knew that we needed to be outside our comfort zones in order to grow. For me, the character-building started in our basement where we would do 1v1s plus a goalkeeper. My older brother would absolutely destroy me and I would do everything in my power to destroy my younger brother for as long as possible. The numerous meltdowns, tears, blood, and sweat built us for where we are now. And if I could do it all over again, I would not change a thing.”

That pedigree and development have led Brianna to become a major star in women’s soccer. She represented the United States as a youth representative for the 2026 World Cup bid and made history as the youngest player to make a tournament roster for the senior women’s national team in 2017 in the She Believes Cup. As a Tar Heel, She has 14 goals and 11 assists in 41 NCAA appearances.

Brianna said, “As a midfielder, it is my goal to average a goal or an assist every game. I hold myself to a high standard because of my decorated youth career and I want to have an impact at every level I am a part of. My expectations are always challenging because I want to leave my mark on this program. I came to UNC in hopes of being groomed to become a member of the senior U.S. Women’s National Team, and I truly believe (UNC head coach) Anson (Dorrance) has all the guidance I need to achieve this dream. More specific to UNC, everyone comes here to win a national championship. Although we fell just short of this goal last year, we came back stronger, smarter and with more motivation to get it done this year. I believe in my teammates and I truly believe that we have all the tools to make it happen.”

“This team can definitely win the national championship. However, it will not be easy because every team brings their best effort when playing against the University of North Carolina. Our resilience, our hunger, our passion, and our love for playing with each other are qualities that will enable us to prevail. All we have left to do is leave it all on the field every game for the remainder of the season.”

Pinto represents her home state proudly, just like another North Carolina “middle child”. “I love J. Cole. He is truly a North Carolina legend and I listen to his music whenever possible,” she said about the platinum-selling rapper. When I asked if she listens to Cole before matches for the Tar Heels, she responded that she doesn’t have a pre-match playlist. “Sure, I will listen to whatever music is being played in the locker room, but on the bus ride to the stadium, you can usually find me taking a nap. It reminds me of the peaceful days of being a youth soccer player where I was sound asleep in the back of my parent’s minivan on the way to my soccer games. It allows me to arrive to the stadium feeling relaxed and focused. I think it is a great way to manage nerves prior to big games,” she said.

After a win over Boston College last night, those big matches are on the near horizon including a top-ACC matchup vs. Florida State next week and the ACC tournament shortly after in the first week of November. But, one thing is for sure: Brianna Pinto will have much more important matches in her future, professionally and for the USWNT. No matter where she goes, she will be representing the Tar Heel State.

Author

Carson A Merk

Reporting live from Sin City, I have covered both RGVFC and Las Vegas Lights FC since their inceptions. I also write profiles to highlight players from the NCAA to USL to NWSL and everywhere in between.