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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels Lose Seniors, NCAA Title

Instead of a national title, the UNC women's soccer team ended its season with emotional farewells.

Junior defender Leslie Gaston broke down first, her shoulders shaking as she cried into her warmup jacket.

Sophomore midfielder Jordan Walker slid her chair closer to Bill Prentice, North Carolina's team doctor, for comfort.

Even tough-as-nails junior goalkeeper Jenni Branam wiped tears from her flushed cheeks as she squeezed Gaston's shoulder.

The bond between the athletes and the coaching staff was evident in the team's most emotional moment of the season.

No, this was not the scene following UNC's painful end to an unbeaten season.

The sobs came two days before the top-ranked Tar Heels' 1-0 loss to No. 2 Santa Clara in the NCAA Championship game on Sunday, Dec. 7.

In fact, the situation described had nothing to do with the Tar Heels' quest for another national title, a mission that fell short for only the fourth time in 21 tries.

Gaston, Walker, Branam and even UNC coach Anson Dorrance became choked-up because it was time to say goodbye.

"It happens every year," Walker said. "Everyone is bawling."

The NCAA final four -- a weekend Dorrance earlier this season called "a party you can't miss" -- is a regular occurrence for the Tar Heels.

Since women's soccer was recognized nationally as a varsity sport, North Carolina has been the only team to compete in every final four. During Dorrance's unrivaled streak, he has developed a tradition to say farewell to his seniors.

This tradition is little known to those outside North Carolina's inner circle, but it is a time that every player looks forward to with bittersweet regard.

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It's Friday night, Dec. 5, and UNC's locker room at Gerald Ford Stadium is quiet with anticipation.

After Dorrance and assistant coach Bill Palladino spend about 15 minutes reviewing last-minute X's and O's, they excuse the seniors, giving each woman an embrace and a rose on the way out.

Then, Dorrance picks up a manila folder, pulls out a sheet of paper and begins.

Earlier that day, much earlier, around 4:30 a.m., Dorrance woke up and turned on a light in his hotel room. UNC's semifinal game against Portland was more than 12 hours away, but Dorrance hadn't risen before the sun to think strategy.

In the dawning hours, he composed four letters -- one for each of the senior reserves.

He would compose the starters' -- defender Danielle Borgman, midfielder Jena Kluegel and forward Anne Remy -- letters on Sunday, assuming they would win that night (a later

2-1 victory against Portland secured that).

Dorrance said he always waits until the day of the game to write his letters to his seniors, so they can capture his raw emotions.

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Those feelings were obvious as he looked around at his underclassmen Friday evening.

He spoke of how proud goalie Katie Simmons' father was when she played the final minutes in this year's ACC Championship game against Florida State and secured a North Carolina shutout.

"We play for Katie," Dorrance said after he finished his letter.

A letter of commendation Dorrance wrote for goalie Kristin DePlatchett demonstrated his great respect for her.

"We play for Kristin."

Many tears fell when he spoke of reserve forward Amy Whittier and her battle to return from a broken back.

He recalled her in a stretcher watching a game - not in the hospital, but on the sideline - a part of the team.

"We play for Whit."

Sniffles filled the pauses in Dorrance's pre-game ritual.

But it wasn't until North Carolina's coach spoke of Johanna Costa that his own voice began to crack.

He reminded the team of a practice earlier in the week. Costa stood on the inside of the wall during a free-kick drill.

Sophomore defender Catherine Reddick is known to favor the inside, so many of the Tar Heels are hesitant to take that position.

But Costa held her ground and was subsequently nailed by an infamous Reddick rocket.

Dorrance excused Costa from the wall, but she would not budge. Instead of wincing from pain and taking a well-deserved breather, she held her ground and waited for the next kick.

Before he called for the next kick, Dorrance said he noticed tears in Costa's eyes. But he didn't think the tears were a result of Reddick's kick.

He said he sensed that the tears came from Costa's realization that her role in that practice drill was the most that she could give to the team. She did not play any minutes that weekend, but it was Costa that brought tears to her coach's eyes.

"We play for Johanna."

Although it might seem as if North Carolina plays to make history or to continue its dynasty, a trip into the Tar Heels' locker room proved something entirely different.

They play for each other.

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.