The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday May 25th

National Titles Only Part of UNC Soccer Dynasty

For most, winning one championship would be enough.

But for the North Carolina women's soccer team, it might seem that failing to do so -- especially two years in a row -- means something is fundamentally wrong with the program.

Championships have become synonymous with UNC. Few other programs have such pressure to win, although few others have achieved the same kind of success with the Tar Heels' regularity. UNC coach Anson Dorrance has won 17 national titles in 24 seasons.

"We had an advantage early," Dorrance said. "We were the first varsity in the South. With that we tried to keep ourselves in the position where we tried to be a very visible program. We wanted to be dominant as long as possible."

This dominance can be, and has been, an effective recruiting tool.

"Definitely when you come to North Carolina you want four rings," said junior Catherine Reddick. "Winning my freshman year got it kick-started. I was like, 'One down, three to go,' but over the last two years it's been a different story."

A story that has had a similar ending, though, despite a modified cast and a different script. UNC ended its 2002 season with a 2-1 national semifinal loss to Santa Clara. The year before it was a 1-0 loss in the title match, also to Santa Clara.

During the press conference after the December loss, silence permeated the room. Dorrance joked that he was flattered. But there was some truth to it.

How could UNC lose in the final four?

"If we're going to lose, I'd love to lose that way," said senior Leslie Gaston. "I look back at the semifinal game, and a couple of goals didn't go our way."

Gaston's sentiments are understandable. The loss had included a miraculous save by a Santa Clara defender and several opportunities that just didn't materialize for the Tar Heels, including one recalled goal for an offsides violation.

But was it a dynasty-breaking defeat? Did UNC even have a dynasty in the first place?

"When I think of UNC, that's not what comes to mind," said Gaston, who used the phrase "continued perfection" to describe a dynasty. "I think of my best friends. Soccer is just something that brought us together. I don't think people understand that."

There is more to UNC's program than national titles. It's obvious in the smiles and the equally fierce determination to win each ball at the afternoon practices.

It's in the little things.

"I think Anson strives to be perfect in a game that can never be perfect," Gaston said. "There's always the challenge to get better and better. They focus on the stuff that almost seems insignificant in order to achieve perfection."

And in concentrating on the minutia, UNC perfects its image.

"The dynasty is not over," Reddick said. "Anson has Heather O'Reilly coming in, the best recruit in the nation. He got the best recruiting class last year. The dynasty is not over."

O'Reilly, an incoming freshman from New Brunswick, N.J., already has seen time with the U.S. women's national team. But she wasn't lured by a title.

"If I win a national championship, then that would be great, but I went to UNC because there is proof that a player can go into UNC a top-level player but can come out so improved," she said.

The proof comes in the form of O'Reilly's national teammates, such as former Tar Heel Carla Overbeck, who was a part of four national title teams.

"I just think that people on the outside expect them to win every year and don't realize that it gets tougher and tougher every year to do that," she said. "As much as you'd like to win all of them, sometimes it just doesn't happen that way."

However, that doesn't change fans' reactions. Instead of congratulations, Reddick said the "What happened?" question tends to be the most asked.

"I don't like that kind of question," Reddick said. "The expectations are incredibly high, especially around this campus for us because we normally bring in the national championship."

The pressure is a constant, but not overwhelming battle for most players.

"You obviously feel some pressure to continue that tradition," said former Tar Heel Jena Kluegel. "But at the same time you realize you can't rely on the past success of the program to guarantee success for a while."

The Tar Heels welcome the challenge.

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

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