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RAMblings 12.9.08 - Soccer Juggernaut Rolls On

by Lee Pace

 

            Michael Jordan and Casey Nogueira.

            Smooth jumper from the left corner by one, surgically placed kick from the left side of the box by the other.

            Defeat for Georgetown in one game, a loss by Notre Dame in another.

            And national titles for the Tar Heels in both.

            The thought of Jordan came to mind instantly Sunday when I watched Nogueira’s heroics to nail the Fighting Irish and lift Carolina to a 2-1 win in the NCAA women’s soccer championship game.

            Geniuses at work. That’s what you have with Tar Heel basketball players and soccer impresarios.

            As Dean Smith used to joke frequently, “Basketball school? I thought North Carolina was a women’s soccer school.”

            The once-tied Tar Heels and the undefeated Irish were locked in a 1-1 stalemate Sunday as the clock neared the two-minute mark. More than 7,000 spectators packed WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary and many more watched ESPN2’s live telecast. A half dozen hardy male Tar Heel fans went shirtless in the 40-degree temperatures and displayed a clever sign with X-outs through the names of football stars Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow and the words “Nogueira for Heisman” underneath.

            Nogueira, a former resident of Wisconsin who moved to Raleigh in high school so as to be near coach Anson Dorrance’s esteemed program, had emerged during her junior season as perhaps the best soccer player in the country with 23 goals, eight assists, first team All-America honors, ACC Offensive Player of the Year status and Top Drawer Soccer Player of the Season. Earlier in the game, she had deftly placed a direct kick into the left corner of the frame to overcome Notre Dame’s early 1-0 lead. 

With time running down, she dribbled the ball on the left flank near the Notre Dame goal. She intended to hit a cross to a teammate, but somewhere her instincts took over and the plan changed. She juked a defender with some svelte footwork and launched a shot with her left foot that sailed inches over the outstretched arms and hands of Notre Dame goalkeeper Kelsey Lysander and just under the crossbar on the right side of the net.

            “I think they were waiting for me to cut inside like I always do, and then I saw a couple of players there,” Nogueira said. “So I just cut outside and I was trying to get to the end line. Then I realized she was going to catch up to me, so I just hit it across and it hit somebody and went in.”

            Dorrance has seen dozens of outstanding soccer players over his three decades coaching the Tar Heel women’s team—from Mia Hamm to Kristine Lilly, from Carla Overbeck to Shannon Higgins. After the victory—the Tar Heels’ 20th national championship—he spoke of Nogueira’s vast potential. He noted you couldn’t tell the difference between Nogueira’s tools and tricks and those of the world-class soccer great Ronaldinho. He spoke of her evolution as a soccer player and her improving ability to take her skills and potential and put them into action in the crux of the national playoffs.

 

            “The two goals she struck today were world-class finishes,” Dorrance said. “If both those goals were scored in a Premiership game, you would be seeing both of them on a highlight reel at the end of the week. On the greatest platform we have, she scored two of the most phenomenal goals I’ve ever seen. Our game doesn’t get much exposure, and certainly for the young girls that are watching, it gets almost none. As far as these young girls think, the only people that can hit that kind of strike are the men that play in the Premiership.”

            Hearing Dorrance speak of exposure for women’s collegiate soccer, my mind wandered back to another moment in time, this one a conversation I had with him 20 years ago. Carolina had just won the 1988 women’s soccer title and the Tar Heel juggernaut was in its infant stages. Dorrance talked of the evolution of the program at Carolina, that the Heels benefitted from the decision in the late 1970s by then-athletic director Bill Cobey to field a varsity team and fund it with scholarships—something no other schools were doing at the time. He said it was like running a 100-yard dash with a 10-year head start.

            “If you have a soccer match and mom and dad the dog and cat come to watch it, the press says, ‘Aren’t you disappointed that more people didn’t come to watch?’ How do you answer that? That you have to say yes,” Dorrance said.

            “But if you really told the truth, if you dig below all that, we just love to play. That’s the whole thing of non-revenue sports. Non-revenue athletes just love to play. We don’t care if anybody comes. If you do, fine. If you don’t, that’s okay too. These kids have never played before crowds in their lives, and that hasn’t stopped them. Playing here’s just an extension of what they’ve done all their lives. We just love the game and love to play.”

            Twenty years later, another national title in tow, Dorrance spoke again of how much fun his players had this year. He spoke with a smile of trying to get the team to get focused during pre-game, of his team’s chemistry as a “wonderful kind of joyous anarchy.”

            “We can’t get them to warm up,” he said. “We can’t get them to practice. We can’t get them to shut up. They are just having so much fun. This is one of the most incredibly enjoyable falls I’ve ever had in my life.”