What the Fields Teach

For 25 years, Anson Dorrance ’74 — graduate of an all-boys boarding school — has been the unlikely conductor of the greatest athletic social experiment since women began playing college sports. It’s what you don’t see in games, however, that keeps the whole thing brewing.

I had to suppress a smile recently when my 9-year-old niece’s soccer troubles were revealed by her mother during dinner.

“She comes home from practice crying,” said my sister, amused as well. “She doesn’t like all the running they have to do.”

Don’t be mistaken; I take no pleasure in her struggles as part of a new “challenge” team she recently had been invited to join – a kind of all-star or advanced squad to which recreational youth players can graduate. It’s just that I had spent the past two weeks at the practice field with the UNC women’s soccer team, watching freshmen who had played the game all their lives – well enough to be recruited by the most complete and successful program in the nation – bring up the end of a starting line and then, as punishment, complete five one-arm pushups in 90-degree heat and humidity before lining up to sprint 10 consecutive lengths of a soccer field and jog back to the beginning just as many times – a test that is known infamously in the champion-training business as “doing 120s.” I’d seen them wince from the physical and psychological pressure of trying to make it to one end in 18 seconds and back in 30 on each run. Two-thirds of the entire defending national championship team failed that benchmark. The eight players who did not fail got to sleep in while the others met for “breakfast” at 7 a.m. each morning thereafter – not to share a bagel but to run until they did pass the 120s.

Years ago, if you were a little girl who came home crying from an activity, it was probably from ballet practice, and not because of the strenuous nature of the hour but because one of the other girls was better than you or prettier than you or just didn’t like you. Today, if you’re a young girl shedding tears from the physical intensity of a lot of running, you’re in pretty good company.

If you listen closely, you can hear what’s happening to my niece and to thousands of other young girls playing soccer and other sports in the United States – the creaking, popping, splitting sound of competitive growing pains, of little dolls changing out of patent-leather shoes and into cleats. But if you attend the preseason training sessions for the winningest varsity athletics program in NCAA history (men or women) at the modest Finley Fields near UNC’s golf course, you can get something more. You can see where it all began, and where it’s all going.

Sixteen Days in August

The Tar Heels get no special treatment for having won 18 of the 23 national titles that have been contested in women’s soccer, and so they begin training for their next one on the same NCAA-sanctioned day that the other 294 Division I teams begin: Aug. 11. That gives them 16 days to prepare for their first game. The 8 a.m. sun is still low and sleepy as almost 30 women – missing are junior Lindsay Tarpley and sophomore Heather O’Reilly, who are in Athens for the Olympics – make their inaugural warm-up jog around the field. At this point, little separates them from their opponents, unless you count the expectations that come from following a 2003 squad that went 27-0 and held its NCAA Tournament opponents scoreless en route to their title, the one that had eluded them the previous two years in such fashion as to make the soccer cognoscenti wonder if this was the end of the “dynasty.”

O ye of little faith. Yes, there are 272 more women’s soccer teams playing today than there were in 1981, when UNC began its remarkable run. And yes, the strong hint of parity finally was blowing across the nation’s soccer fields when the trophy didn’t come home to Chapel Hill in 2001 and 2002. But the Tar Heels prepare for everything, including a change in wind direction.

Today, they’ll test recovery speed, agility and a half-dozen other measures of fitness before a full 90-minute afternoon scrimmage, in which the returning starters will be embarrassed to shut out the freshmen and reserves by only a 1-0 margin. Welcome to the competitive cauldron, as UNC Head Coach Anson Dorrance ’74 likes to call his training methods. The results of these and all other fitness training and soccer drills they complete from here until the end of the season will be tallied, printed and posted in a glass-enclosed bulletin board at the practice fields, ranking each player in every category imaginable, updated weekly. The only marker missing in the competitive matrix is whose car arrives in the gravel lot first.

The idea is: You’re not here to make friends on the field. You’re here to obliterate the competition, whoever the competition happens to be that day. And right now, it’s your own teammates.

The coaching staff puts together a taxing preseason regimen to remind athletes that “if they don’t prepare in the summer, it’s going to be a miserable experience for them,” Dorrance says. But he, and all of his players, will tell you that nothing compares “to the incredible trepidation and fear the players have of the 120s.”

On the day of the 120s, heavy clouds gather, literally and figuratively. The soccer gods seem to have a sense of humor to go along with their drama. The women soberly line up, as if preparing to face a firing squad instead of the limitations of their own feet across 120 yards of dewy grass. To them, it’s all the same.

Dorrance’s longtime assistant coach, Bill Palladino, spots junior Kendall Fletcher at the far end of the line, looking as subdued as the rest of the players.

“Fitness is our friend, Kendall!” he barks at her.

She snaps to. “It’s not just our friend, Dino,” she yells back. “It’s our best friend.”

It’s a cute retort, but it’s not meant to be, Dorrance says. These women don’t do cute. “That just shows Kendall’s leadership,” he says. “If the leaders are handling an adverse condition well, like she obviously was, it should indicate to everyone else that, you know what? You can survive this, too.”

This season, survival for UNC means proving that last year’s return to glory was no hoax. Carolina lost five seniors to graduation, including four starters who were named to the NCAA All-Tournament team and a national player-of-the-year award winner, Catherine Reddick ’04. Seven freshmen begin preseason training hoping to find a place for themselves inside the belly of a soccer legend. (Two others, members of under-19 national teams for the U.S. and Canada, will join the team after their international competitions.) They practice together in drills, looking lost at times, brilliant at others. They try to get used to Dorrance’s coaching style, his witty repartee: “Whenever you’re slashing keepers, be as aggressive as you can. Throw your body into it, even if you have no chance.” Or, “I know we suck at goalkeeping, but we don’t have to suck at soccer. Defend!”

Each time they kick a ball straight into the air instead of toward the net in scoring drills, they do push-ups. “We’ll either be skillful,” Dorrance tells his team, “or we’ll have enormous chests.”

Carolina wins its first two games, on the road. Absent from the first two matches are not only the two Olympians, each busy scoring goals en route to winning gold in Athens for the United States, but three of the freshmen who didn’t make it through the second week of preseason – the ones whose legs gave out on them in the 120s, who couldn’t even finish some drills.

“The most graceful thing you can do,” Dorrance says, “is just sit down with them and say, you know what? I’m getting the sense that you’d rather just be a UNC student and enjoy campus life. And then they’re agreeing with you. And that’s fine. In fact, when I was telling the rest of the team that those freshmen had decided not to continue, I told them, ‘Maybe they’re the ones who are really sensible. Because you guys have to be psychotic to be out here killing yourselves for this. The standards that we set are so ridiculously high that it’s not for everyone.’ ”

As UNC’s head trainer Bill Prentice put it, “They had to quit before they hurt themselves.”

A calloused equality

The fall recreational soccer season is just beginning on the fields behind Chapel Hill High School, and this is only the second practice session for the Chapel Hill United’s under-12 girls challenge team. But the Tempests, as they are known, look for all the world as if they’re training for an NCAA championship. Intensity covers their faces, they go for balls and find themselves skidding across the turf, bump shoulders and elbows, knees and hips. “Who’s got Sydney?” screams the goalkeeper. “WHO’S GOT SYDNEY?” When they’re not doing a drill, they’re tactically dissecting bits of the Olympic gold-medal game from earlier in the day – the last hurrah for their goddess, Mia Hamm ’94, who, in her flag-draped, world-celebration lap, didn’t forget to look into the NBC camera and plug the promised land of girls’ soccer.

You can trace that glint of confidence you’ve been noticing in your granddaughter in just three degrees: Hamm, UNC, Dorrance. The government may have conceived Title IX, the now-32-year-old law that gave equal status to collegiate women athletes; but Dorrance painted in its lines, and his early players applied the gloss coat. The result is a competitive art form that is copied with varying success across the country, its brushstrokes felt not just in women’s soccer, but across the full canvas of women’s and girls’ sports.

By now, Dorrance has told hundreds of eager audiences how April Heinrichs ’86, who coached the U.S. team to victory in Athens, was his model for the cauldron, a spitfire who, unlike most female athletes at the time, wanted to get ahead more than she wanted to get along. Around her example, he created an environment where cutthroat competition on the field could coincide with blow-dried femininity off of it. Then, in the early ’90s, he drew out Hamm’s naturally quiet voice and encouraged her to become the face and conscience of her sport and of her gender. He couldn’t have imagined how it would turn out.

Both the U.S. women’s basketball and softball teams also won gold in Athens. But it was Mia everyone discussed.

“We’ve embraced all the issues of Title IX in our program,” Dorrance says. “We’ve embraced women’s equality. But we treat our players with a calloused equality. These are powerful, confident, aggressive, ambi tious women. And in so many other cultures across the world, they can’t be. It’s a credit to the strong women who frame our culture that our athletic teams are doing so well – and to Mia Hamm, and now Lindsay and Heather, who demonstrate it, that they’re tough and they have no problems with this new definition of femininity.”

That definition naturally spills over to current UNC players.

“The fact is,” says junior midfielder Kacey White, “that there are tons of little girls who are at games watching us play and watching us on TV, and when we put on the uniform, we put ourselves in that position of being looked up to.”

More than just little girls look up to them. Patrick Fisher, who played soccer for UC-Berkeley in the late ’90s and in the MLS professionally, came to practice one day to peddle a new kind of protective headgear for a California-based soccer apparel company. He had seen his share of soccer practices in these little sales visits across the country. And even in this grown man’s face, it’s fair to say, there was wonderment.

“Most players at practice, if they make a mistake, they just let it go,” Fisher said. “These women … won’t stop until they get it right. They treat practice like it’s a game.”

Ask any player, and she’ll tell you there are good reasons for that.

“With the training environment we have here,” White says, “sometimes it’s hard to replicate that in games. Sometimes, games just aren’t quite as challenging as practices.”

Ultimately, that’s what continues to set UNC apart from the teams who attempt to replicate their art. When you’re already competing at the highest level possible with 30 of your teammates, what could 11 players from a less hungry team possibly offer you? The Tar Heels’ culture is such a well-oiled killing machine that Dorrance and Palladino don’t plan their practices in advance; they know that whatever drill they do that day, Kendall Fletcher is going to surprise them with a diving header, that Lori Chalupny is going to leave small pieces of herself all over the field. That more than two dozen April and Mia clones would bleed before they’d see their names on a downward trajectory in the competitive matrix.

The team rarely, if ever, practices longer than 90 minutes.

“We don’t believe in boring anyone to death,” Dorrance says. “We get the work done, we work as hard as we can, and then we send them.”

Tar Heel lost, Tar Heel gained

The intensity of Carolina’s practice sessions, however, isn’t always embraced, and some of Dorrance’s best recruits have cracked under the program’s pressure through the years.

Amy Burns Kiah ’96 came to play for Dorrance from Atlanta, where she had arrived late to the competitive soccer club scene and had been on an admittedly “not very good” high school squad. Kiah’s unhappiness once she arrived in Chapel Hill was so acute that she spent a great deal of time on the phone with her mother, crying; or in Dorrance’s office, threatening to transfer. She didn’t lack talent or a love for playing soccer, but she did lack a killer instinct. The insecurities that plagued all areas of her life made playing at a higher level difficult, so much so that when she first committed to Carolina, “I was terrified. I kind of even wondered why he recruited me.”

In her first preseason, she remembers failing fitness tests and crying during the 120s when she realized she would fail them, too. But the worst was that first-day scrimmage against the starters.

“They’re running for the full 90 minutes and going after you,” she recalled, “and nobody’s going to let down because you’re a freshman, or because you’re a little homesick or a little intimidated.”

Kiah got over her fears well enough to earn one of 18 travel spots on the team and pass preseason tests as a sophomore, but by the end of her red-shirt junior year, she could no longer give in to Dorrance’s pleas to stay. She left for the College of Charleston, where she made the all-conference team. But she found herself miserable with the Cougars for different reasons. At Carolina, she’d learned, eventually, to go all out in practice and earn praise from her teammates; but in Charleston, she was called a “show-off.” She was neither liked nor challenged by the other women, and she deeply regretted leaving UNC.

“I would have liked, in retrospect, to have spent my last two years there,” says Kiah, who still assists with UNC’s girls’ camp.

Dorrance says you can never tell what you’re going to get in college from a player who was great in high school until she faces the intensity of practice – specifically, that first scrimmage. You recruit talent, he says, but “the bottom line is self-discipline, self-esteem and competitive fire. Sometimes an extraordinarily talented player will come in and you’ll think: The Messiah has arrived. And you’re going to sort out eventually that there are so many pieces missing in this player that she’s not going to make it.”

Good coaches have a way of demanding greatness from anyone who comes into their sphere, and, years later, Kiah said, long after her playing career was over, she still sought the approval of the coach she felt she had let down. Dorrance’s standards ultimately were the reason Kiah in 1999 became the head coach at Wofford College, where she regularly ranks all her players in multiple training categories, and where, yes, they run those 120s.

Kiah recalled that many of the freshmen who entered UNC with her in 1992 ended up transferring or quitting soccer altogether, and it’s easy to understand her explanation. Imagine trying to find a place for yourself on a legendary team of bona fide superstars that featured future Olympic gold medalists Hamm, Kristine Lilly ’93 and Tisha Venturini ’95 – all of whom also were competing against the world’s best players as members of the U.S. National Team when they weren’t tearing up other college teams.

“When you step on the field, you’re stepping on for Mia or Kristine,” Kiah says. “It’s difficult to feel you’re going to make a difference.”

The perception that UNC is perennially too loaded with talent – and too tough a program to be a part of – is one that Dorrance says he battles annually. As a result, UNC doesn’t get all of the best recruits each year, although you may play the world’s tiniest violin for him while you count the championships he’s won with players who are just so-so.

“Our reputation does precede us,” admits Dorrance, whose 2004 recruiting class, even coming off a 27-0 season, was ranked only third best by Soccer Buzz magazine. “But the kind of girl who doesn’t come here is afraid of that work ethic. Kids we lose to other programs – we want to lose them. And we lose girls all the time. We end up having to beat those kids we wanted. But we beat them with players who were the backups for the kids we were chasing.”

One of those he almost lost is current freshman Jaime Gilbert, who scored a hat trick in her second college game, against California, and had another game-winning goal two games later.

Gilbert, one of the nation’s top prep prospects last year, wasn’t even going to visit UNC, much less play here.

“You know the legacy that he’s built over the years,” she says. “And you hear what people have to say about that. It’s all kind of overwhelming, and you don’t really know if you’ll ever find a spot – and if you are part of that UNC legacy, whether you can do anything to really impact it, you know what I mean? I knew that at the other schools I was looking at, I could definitely be a standout star.”

When she did finally give in to her father, Cesar, and give UNC a chance, it was not only her last recruiting visit but her shortest. What Gilbert saw at practice helped lead to her change of heart. Dorrance’s players showed an intensity in their all-out training sessions that vastly surpassed the other colleges she’d visited.

“I thought, I know I’ll get better at UNC,” she said. “I’m not sure that I would get better at the other schools.”

Though Gilbert says she “definitely feel[s] like a freshman on the best team in the country,” she hasn’t looked like one early on. Dorrance was so impressed with her sophistication in practice that he quizzed her on where it came from. Did she study the game on television?

” ‘Oh,’ she says, ‘all the time,’ ” recounted Dorrance, excitedly. “She and her father love watching the game. His love for the game has also been adopted by his daughter – not only to play it, but just to watch it. And if that could become a part of the American fabric, it’s going to really impact for us.”

For Dorrance, nothing could be better. Because despite the enormous boulder his teams have dug women’s sports out from under over the years, there’s still a long way to go before young women like Kiah learn the differences between sport and life, and women like Gilbert help to positively entwine the two.

“Even though I think our culture is changing and women are glorified now for their athletic achievements,” he says, “in the back of every woman’s mind, even a successful female athlete’s, is the idea that, ‘Well, don’t I still define myself by who I’m going out with and who I’m going to marry or how many children I’m going to have?’

“But who’s to say that the male paradigm of having gold medals dangling around your neck makes a more complete person than a woman who has successfully fulfilling relationships with her family? I’m certainly not going to. But what women are beginning to say more often is that they will be high achievers in athletics, too.”

Having it all

Relationships still drive the UNC team bus. On my way to watch the under-12 Tempest team in Chapel Hill, I passed a similarly aged, ragtag group of girls laughing and giggling their way through knee dribbles and shooting skills. Nothing in their countenance resembled the Tempests; if they wanted to be Mia Hamm, it wasn’t her competitive spirit they sought to emulate. All the same, their glee reminded me of something I saw often at UNC practices: an utter buoyancy for each other.

Part of that stems from the humor Dorrance injects into his drills: counseling players, for example, that they can simply have plastic surgery later in life if they happen to head a ball in the wrong spot. But mainly, it comes from conquering the ugliest physical exertion that their bodies can bring to get at the best, and doing it together. Nowhere was this more evident than in the “beep” test on the first day of practice.

The women ran successive 40-meter intervals – 20 meters out, 20 meters back – at a pace set by an audio tape, with 10 seconds to rest in between runs. They knew they were safe if they didn’t hear the beep before they crossed the 40-meter marker. If they missed it twice, they sat.

“This is as much a psychological test as it is a fitness test,” Dorrance told them before they began. “If you are psychologically fit, you can play through pain.”

Each time they ran, the pace became a little quicker, the beep came a little sooner. So they took it easy at first, running in a single horizontal line, everyone making it easily through the first few. Then they began dropping by twos and then threes, kneeling to the turf, cheering on and watching the others finish what they could not.

There were 10 left, then six. Several minutes in, senior Anne Morrell began to falter, but her classmate Anne Felts – whose hair, having disappeared at age 16 due to an autoimmune disorder called alopecia, started to grow back after last year’s national championship game – was running beside her, and she wouldn’t let her give up.

“C’mon Annie, next one,” Felts called over her shoulder as she crossed the line. “Let’s go, Annie. You can do this. You’ve got this one.”

They were running together and against each other and singularly, all at once, competing with both themselves and the mirror image their peripheral teammates put before them. They wanted to be the last one standing. But this is family, too, and you don’t idly watch a member struggle.

It doesn’t matter who won the beep, really. What matters is that they’re in the cauldron every year, lapping it up, slicing through their teammates so they can backstroke through their opponents, one for all and all for one, and taking all the little girls who will line up after games to see them along with them on their grand social experiment.

When you’re a woman, three months pregnant with your first child, watching this August display and wondering what the spring will bring, you cannot help but want to accompany Dorrance and his players on their journey through the fall. Indeed, you cannot help but wonder if the soft ball of promise taking shape inside you is a little girl, or to hope that she – like you, like the rest of the world – has been taking notes.

Copyright 2004 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, November/December 2004