This article originally appeared in the October 8 issue of CAROLINA: The Magazine.
by Amy Hoots
CHAPEL HILL - Inane.
That's the word the head coach of the Tar Heels uses to describe the tradition of women's soccer at Carolina.
Perhaps that needs to put into context. Here are his exact words, spoken bluntly, which is the only way Anson Dorrance knows how to speak them: "I really feel for all of these kids who have to come in and defend this absolutely inane tradition that the only respectable result for a team is a national championship. On any other team, if the kid wins the national championship, it's an incredible success for that kid. Here if they win a couple, that's okay, that's average."
On a different day, Dorrance may speak of the many advantages of being part of such a storied program, but today he won't mince words speaking about the veiled side of success. "We certainly want them to be proud of their tradition, but we don't want them to suffer from the stress of comparisons with previous generations that have come through."
It's easy to see why Dorrance may not want to have each player compare herself to the likes of previous generations which include names like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Heather O'Reilly, to name just a few. Who can compare? Perhaps All-American seniors Kealia Ohai and Crystal Dunn might fit the mold. Dunn and Ohai have the weighty responsibility of defending the traditional that includes 21 NCAA national championships, more than any women's college team in history.
Both are superstars, and both play for the Tar Heels. On some teams, two great players can be a recipe for disaster, but here, they go together like birthdays and cakes. Dorrance said, "There is no level of jealousy. When I hear Kealia speak about Crystal, it's nothing but respect. And when Crystal is speaking about K, it's the same thing."
Dunn is a skillful dribbler whose moves strike awe in those who play with her and fear in those who have the misfortune of competing against her. Ohai is a prolific scorer, a player who wants the ball when the game is on the line. Together, they frustrate opponents and dominate games.
Dunn calls Ohai her "partner in crime" and a teammate who can be counted on to cover her back. "I go on random dribbling rants, and I don't know where I'm going half the time," she said, laughing. "But I can always rely on K to be in a good position to show for me. She always wants the ball and that's what I love about her."
Ohai can be sure that if Dunn doesn't get a shot up herself, she'll find a way to get her the ball. "Sometimes when she starts dribbling, you're like mesmerized by her. It's incredible and I just have to keep reminding myself to show, that she's going to get it to me," Ohai said.
The World Stage
"2012 was pretty much the highlight of my life," Ohai will tell you.
In September of last year, she and Dunn traveled to Japan to compete for the U20 World Cup title. Before the end of the first half, Dunn did what she does so well, deftly dribbling the ball past German defenders before passing to her teammate who would score the game's lone goal. It is perhaps fitting that the goal which clinched the American's victory over Germany for the world title was scored by Kealia Ohai with an assist from her Tar Heel teammate. They perform that number frequently on American soil, and the formula proved successful on the world stage as well.
The world champions returned from Japan in the middle of their college season, exhausted emotionally and physically. "It's very hard to go from the top of Mount Everest to Marianas Trench and get motivated to come back and compete collegiately," Dorrance said. "They could've gone into cruise control. What do they have to prove? They're world champions."
The two still had work to do, though. Their individual resumes were impressive, but there was a glaring hole. They both felt the pressure and were determined to produce an NCAA national championship.
They competed two years with no national championship, a lifetime in Carolina soccer years. "They went through some lean years, but they hung in there like grim death. They were rewarded last year and on their backs we won," said Dorrance. "If it wasn't Dunn scoring and Ohai assisting, it was Ohai scoring and Dunn assisting."
It is no exaggeration to say that Ohai and Dunn carried their team throughout the NCAA tournament. Dunn scored five goals throughout, many of them at pivotal moments. Her goal in the third round kept the season alive for the Tar Heels in their eventual win against Baylor. She followed up that game with a pair of goals, including the game-winner in overtime, to seal the win against BYU.
In the next NCAA semifinal game against top-ranked Stanford, Ohai took over the reigns and scored the golden goal in overtime to advance her team to the national championship game where they faced Penn State. Ohai was quicker to score against the Nittany Lions and put points on the board in the opening minute. The Tar Heels maintained the lead and Ohai and Dunn, world champions, were now national champions as well.
Dorrance praises Ohai and Dunn for their conduct after returning from the World Cup. "The NCAA tournament was a great statement about their character and their loyalty towards their college teammates and their program," he said. "The way they conducted themselves on and off the field I think is a wonderful example to anyone out there about humility and ambition."
Ohai said, "Winning that national championship was a little bit of relief of pressure."
The statement comes from someone who embraces pressure, who loves it. When the game is on the line, Ohai wants the ball. But even the coolest of player feels the hefty weight of expectations.
Relieving the Pressure
The conference room in the McCaskill Soccer Center is occupied, so we pull up a few stray chairs and talk outside the coaches offices. Dunn and Ohai have been ushered from a photo shoot on the soccer field to our appointment, and afterward will do an on-camera interview. Dorrance passes by, "Are these my TV stars?" he teases.
With a hairbrush in hand, Dorrance pretends to toss it in the direction of his superstars. "Anson calls us divas," the girls reveal with mock disgust. Of course, it is funny only because it isn't true.
"I think I'm going to quit soccer and take up modeling," Dunn threatens as the head coach walks away towards his office. "No problem! There's better money in that anyway," he calls out from down the hall.
It is this type of playful banter that is common and necessary in easing the load placed on players' shoulders each day. "What I try to do is take the pressure off them," said Dorrance, referred to informally as "Anson" among his players.
Some coaches must demand formality to ensure respect. Some must require silence on bus trips to reinforce the importance of an upcoming match. Some must constantly lecture about performing at a high level in order to uphold their program's legacy. The Carolina women's soccer legacy is so impressive, Dorrance must do the opposite.
Dorrance recruits players like Ohai and Dunn, players that know the stakes, players that don't need to be retold what is expected, and don't need to be reminded who came before them. The players think about those things each day. The pressure from the outside is as great as the pressure from within, and they thrive on it.
With few other options to stop the dynamic duo, teams have gotten physical this year and the referees don't seem to be providing the Tar Heels with any favors. "Not getting frustrated is key, because going forward defenders are going to hit us hard," said Ohai. "We're just going to have to embrace it," said Dunn. "That's why it's important to lean on each other. I know if they're beating me up, I can give the ball to K and say, 'Go, score, please."
The relief of pressure. Even for the strongest of competitors, a competent teammate to bear the load is a welcome reprieve. Ohai finds it in Dunn, and Dunn knows that when there are no more defenders to dribble past, Ohai will be waiting.
She's eager for the ball, ready to score, desperate to win. She's ready to defend the Carolina soccer tradition, no matter how inane her head coach might think it to be.