Friday, August 13, 2004
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: UNC women's soccer program sets the standard by which others are measured
By Chris Cowles
SPECIAL TO THE WINSTON-SALEM JOURNAL
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When it comes to the University of North Carolina and success in women's soccer, people not only accept it, but expect it.
Based on the honors bestowed on the program over the years and the players it has produced - a who's who of women's soccer - there is no equaling the achievements at Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels' trophy cases are brimming with hardware collected over the years, in part by players who also went on to represent the United States on the world's stage and to some of the greatest achievements in women's athletics.
"There's a certain aura that's been created for girls who play soccer," said Tony DiCicco, a former U.S. women's national-team coach. "They dream of two things: playing for North Carolina and playing for the U.S. national team."
A staggering 18 national titles and ACC crowns in 16 of the 17 seasons the league has recognized women's soccer as a varsity sport are numbers in the record books for Anson Dorrance, but the legacy the Tar Heels' coach has created has essentially helped transform the sport.
Despite failing to defend its World Cup title last year and its Olympics crown in 2000, the U.S. women's team remains the most successful and most consistent team in the world. From its humble beginnings in 1985 to its meteoric rise to international fame after the 1999 World Cup, players at North Carolina or those who did their time on Fetzer Field, have played a pivotal part every time the American team takes the field.
Whether wearing Tar Heel blue or a U.S. jersey, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, April Heinrichs, Carla Overbeck, Tisha Venturini and Shannon Higgins have helped the women's game flourish across the country, especially at the college level in the past decade.
Although the ongoing dynasty at UNC remains a work in progress, the pool of players for the national team -- once predominately culled from Chapel Hill - is now drawn from colleges from coast to coast.
"Anson (Dorrance) is a great motivator and a great recruiter," said Overbeck, a longtime defender at North Carolina. "He went out and found kids that he saw something special in, players that had a will to win. He went after kids like that. He continues to fuel that - their dreams and aspirations - within his players."
Dorrance took over the women's program at North Carolina in 1979, the year it became a varsity sport. He already had two years experience coaching North Carolina's men's team and would ultimately lead both teams until 1988, when his sole focus became the women's program. He finished with a 172-65-21 record with the men and the 1987 ACC title.
"We've evolved over time," Dorrance, 53, said in a recent interview with the Journal.
"Work ethic was always the most important aspect of every team I coached," he said. "The North Carolina kid is always exposed to a certain degree of combativeness and competitiveness on the field and that helps produce a quality of player that's unique.
"The North Carolina player never quits and really has a mental and physical preparedness that's unique. We challenge them, teach them and prepare them for every level of the game."
Dorrance's keen ability to recruit players over the years and develop them through disciplined training sessions that sharpened skills and tactical acumen has paid dividends.
Even more telling is the fact that less than 10 players have been cut or left the North Carolina team. The university's support of the team has also grown. In what has always been a basketball hotbed, North Carolina provided women's soccer only four scholarships for room and board in 1980. There are now 12 full-ride scholarships available.
"We got an early edge in the college game," Dorrance said. "Over time, we've become a beacon, in a sense, for elite female players. Once upon a time, if she wanted to be part of a pioneering program, this is where she came."
There was nothing set in stone that if a player went to North Carolina and succeeded that she would be assured a callup to a U.S. training camp or a place on a roster for a tournament, but the chances were certainly better.
"I would be surprised if any national team training standards are higher than ours," said Dorrance, who simultaneously coached the U.S. women's team and North Carolina from 1986 to '94.
"The level of international play was way above the college level," said Overbeck, who won four NCAA titles with UNC and would later be a captain on the U.S. team that took Olympics gold in 1996.
"We were always prepared under Anson," she said. "In the early days, we played some very good teams from Germany, Norway, Sweden and China. That was the start of great rivalries and we learned a lot."
Dorrance also learned.
"I used the international arena to see where we could improve," Dorrance said of both of his teams. "The international game was the one to model your team on. I knew the requirements of the international level and I trained the (UNC) team like it was the national team."
Dorrance said the physical challenges might be harder for players at UNC while tactical challenges might be harder internationally.
"Our teams have always been well prepared," he said. "The kids from North Carolina are in an environment that's a close replication of the international arena. We always try to play with the international speed of play and defensive precision."
In 1991, FIFA established the first women's world championship and Dorrance lead the U.S. team to China where it defeated Norway in the final. Of the 18 players on the squad, nine were Tar Heels. Five members of that team - Hamm, Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett - are on the Olympics team trying to retake the gold medal it lost four years ago to Norway.
This time, six of the 18 players on the Olympics roster have UNC roots and three - Heather O'Reilly, Cat Reddick and Lindsay Tarpley - are students there now. Heinrichs, who was one of the most rugged forwards to ever play the game, coaches the U.S. team and is assisted by Tracey Leone, a UNC alum.
Tiffany Roberts, a former UNC midfielder who is an alternate on the Olympics team, made her first U.S. appearance in 1994 at the age of 16 when Dorrance was still coaching the U.S.
"I never experienced anything like that (training under Dorrance)," said Roberts, who initially wanted to attend a West Coast college.
"His love for the game and the way he made players better in that competitive environment, I felt that Carolina would provide that for me. So many players went through that program and were successful at the national team. I knew I had to go to that program."
Roberts would win two national titles at UNC and go on to score seven goals in 107 games for the U.S. She was on the 1996 gold-medal winning and 1999 World Cup team.
"Some players were probably shocked at how hard it was in national team camp," said Roberts. "I know I was prepared for that coming from North Carolina. Tony (DiCicco) always respected the type of players that had heart and were competitive. The North Carolina players knew what to expect at national-team camp."
Players from other colleges, according to Roberts, had a tougher learning curve. Roberts related a time when Kate Markgraf, who attended Notre Dame, came into a camp and nearly passed out during a practice.
"That was her (Markgraf) first time in camp," Roberts said. "We focused so much on fitness at North Carolina; we were always prepared for national-team camp."
The approach continues to make a difference.
"My goal with the national team was to win at any level we played at," said Dorrance who had a 65-22-5 record with the U.S. "Winning the first women's World Cup was wonderfully satisfying. We tried to build a national team with the elite players. I think we succeeded and that has been the focus since then."
In the famed penalty-kick shootout that decided the 1999 Women's World Cup final between the U.S. and China, the Tar Heels were well represented as Lilly, Hamm and Overbeck each hit their spot kicks.
"The bottom line is the recruiting, Anson gets the best players and he prepares them," said University of Connecticut coach Len Tsantiris whose team was routed, 6-0, in the NCAA final last year by North Carolina. Tsantiris is the second winningest coach of all time, behind Dorrance.
Dorrance begins his 26th season on Aug. 27 when the Tar Heels take on Nebraska at the adidas Invitational in Lincoln.