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The Daily Tar Heel

Stokes Shines In College Cup

The situation was new to Stokes, who waited in the shadows while the media relations staff found him a seat at the dais. When he eventually did sit down, Stokes squinted in the television lights, uncomfortably glancing out at the group of reporters in front of him.

But Stokes should start getting used to the attention. With the impending graduation of arguably the best class in the history of the UNC men's soccer program, he and his underclassmen teammates will soon be featured in the spotlight.

"This is like nothing I've never experienced," Stokes said. "I don't know. I really can't describe it. This is definitely a new thing to me."

The Tar Heels' soft-spoken sophomore defender came into his own on collegiate soccer's biggest stage, putting together two solid performances during the 2001 NCAA Men's College Cup en route to earning the tournament's most valuable defensive player award.

Along with junior Ryan Kneipper, the College Cup's most valuable offensive player, and a talented crew of forwards and midfielders, Stokes proved that there would be plenty of life in the future of the team despite the eventual graduation of seniors Danny Jackson, Chris Leitch, Michael Ueltschey and Noz Yamauchi.

But much of the Tar Heels' success during the past two years -- a period during which they are 42-7 -- can be credited to the type of player UNC coach Elmar Bolowich has recruited and the job his upperclassmen have done in assimilating the younger players into the program.

"I hope that our other players will follow the footsteps of these great guys," Bolowich said, motioning toward his seniors, "and lead the program from now on."

Stokes' development has been nearly two years in the making. A year ago, he joined a veteran defensive unit led by career starters Jackson and Leitch. Add in the goalkeeper, Ueltschey, and the Tar Heels had one of the most experienced back lines in the ACC.

And while it Stokes has had his share of ups and downs along the way, this weekend he established himself as a player capable of living up to the sizable potential of his 6-foot-2 frame.

He consistently frustrated Indiana's All-American forward, Pat Noonan, and kept the Hoosier from getting off a shot in the second half of the championship match.

"He's just a big boy, and he plays physical," Noonan said of Stokes. "Anytime somebody's right on your heels and in your back, it's hard to control the ball."

Although Stokes has been a regular in the North Carolina backfield for the past two years, Kneipper just broke into the starting lineup this season. The forward from Dallas has capitalized on his 6-foot-3 frame throughout the year, and did so again to head in the Tar Heels' first goal against Indiana.

Kneipper led North Carolina with 14 goals and 34 points this season and will return next year to anchor an offense that loses just one player, Yamauchi, from this year's national championship run. And though the Tar Heels will certainly miss the playmaking ability of the speedy, determined East Chapel Hill High product, the team's top five scorers all will be back for Bolowich in 2002.

Junior forwards David Testo and Mike Gell -- both of whom scored in UNC's 3-2 quadruple-overtime victory against Stanford on Friday -- will return, as will midfielders Matt Crawford, Logan Pause and Grant Porter. The Tar Heels' second leading scorer this year, freshman forward Marcus Storey, also will be prepared to aid the offensive attack.

And while Jackson, Leitch, Ueltschey and Yamauchi all spoke of the storybook ending of their careers at UNC, Bolowich must be excited at the prospect of returning more than two-thirds of his starting lineup next season.

But the defense will be a question mark for the first time in four years, and it will be Stokes' job to acclimate new players to the style of play Bolowich favors.

"I guess the torch is kind of passed now because I'm the only one left (in the backfield)," Stokes said. "I'm not sure who's coming in next year, but I'm going to work with them, and hopefully we'll be as good as we were this year."

And maybe Stokes' days in relative obscurity are finally over.

The Sports Editor can be reached at

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