Ten Paces To A Title

Aug. 21, 2006

By Jessica Garrison




Jessica is a women's basketball editor for CSTV.com and contributes regularly. E-mail here!

Forget getting around the block a few times. Anson Dorrance owns this block. With his collection of championship hardware, he might as well be crowned Sultan of Women's Soccer.


The thing is, it's been a couple years since Dorrance and his team ascended to their traditional throne. Of the 23 champions the NCAA has crowned, North Carolina has taken the title 16 times. Dorrance, entering his 28th season at the helm of the program, isn't shy about what it means for the last two national titles to live in the trophy cases of Notre Dame and Portland, not North Carolina.


"It's a disappointment for us," the 55-year-old coach said. "But it's a product of our own creation."


The monster made of Carolina's dominance might seem overwhelming to a mere mortal in the soccer world, but a legend like Dorrance has a more Zen-like approach.


"There isn't that much pressure," Dorrance said. "Just because you're disappointed, that's not life-ending. Soccer is not the kind of game that is easy to win in, even with a good performance and a good team. The toughest thing you're playing against sometimes isn't the other team, it's the game. I'm hoping no player here has ever gotten the impression that I'm disappointed in them, because I'm not."


As he says that last year's team played "wonderfully well" in their 4-1 NCAA quarterfinal loss to Florida State, there is no bitterness, no regret about his team's College Cup finish. When the conversation turns to next season, however, there is determination.


"We lost ten players," Dorrance said matter-of-factly. "We genuinely feel like for us to have a training environment we need to keep a training roster of 26. That precipitated our aggressive recruiting. Given the quality of the individuals that we lost, we felt we had to go after the best."


The best is exactly what Carolina got -- the top recruiting classes in the nation according to Soccer Buzz, with nine freshmen recruits signed for the fall of 2006. Seven of those nine were among the top 25 recruits, and three were plucked from the top 10. Add to that the return from injury of several key players -- freshman forward Sterling Smith and junior national team defender Jessica Maxwell among them.


The young stars almost manage dazzle away the relative inexperience of the Tar Heels' roster. Inexperience in age only, of course, as the incoming freshmen include more than a few Youth National Team members.


Ali Hawkins, a California product, was a two-time All-American and a member of the U17 and U16 USA Women's National Teams. She'll run into more than few familiar faces in her Carolina class, as fellow USA Soccer alumni include forward Ashley Moore, USA U17 captain Melissa Hayes, midfielder Nikki Washington and Hawkins' future roommate and fellow All-American, Tobin Heath.


"It's going to be a long road," transitioning to Carolina, Hawkins said. "It's not something that I can just walk into and expect to be one of the better players. But a lot of the girls, we've played together. All the true freshmen I have met them from our official visit. That'll help with the adjustment of a different soccer environment."


Hawkins and the other rookies will find comfort in the returning starters on the team, including senior forwards Heather O'Reilly and Elizabeth Gues, regarded as two of the Tar Heels' top returners.


"The first job for the upperclassmen is to help [the freshmen] relax a little bit," Dorrance said. "In the way they can stabilize this transition, the veterans are responsible. They have to take as much responsibility for how the game is going as possible so that the freshmen can just focus on getting acclimated."


Since these freshmen come from every climb and place, the acclimation processes will be as varied as their home addresses.


"I have no idea how I'm going to adjust," Hawkins said with a wink in her voice. "I'm most nervous about not having a beach around."


To other sports, college soccer can seem like a strange animal -- USA national team seasons often conflict with college play, nicking the best players from rosters across the country for the start of their school season. Carolina, with its wealth of talent, is among the most heavily affected, and that's where this embarrassment of riches in the freshman ranks comes in quite handy. O'Reilly, for example, will miss the first four games of the season with her National Team duties, but it's an absence the team has learned to take in stride.


Above all, the freshmen know they're stepping into the long shadow of Carolina soccer, a shadow cast today mostly by Dorrance himself.


"It's kind of intimidating when this guy is recruiting you," Hawkins said. "This is what you strive for, and he's done it all. He understands when athletes have goals. A lot of schools you don't want to go there for the coach because you don't know if he's going to stay, but Anson's not going anywhere."


How is this going to effect playing time, especially for upperclassman who have been waiting in the wings through their first seasons?


"We're one of a few teams that tries to play their roster," Dorrance said. "If you look at our substitution patterns, we're not a professional arena, these girls aren't paid to play.


"Any girl who has the competitive fire and work ethic to play for us, were going to get her that playing time."


It's a philosophy that has worked for Dorrance on every level of the game. This year, he'll test whether it can take his unrivaled program back to a national title.



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