AN APPRECIATION

Anson Dorrance, head coach, University of North Carolina

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

In the history of women's sports, there have been good coaches of both genders who seem to get the maximum from their charges. There are Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, and Van Chancellor in basketball, Bela Karolyi in gymnastics, John Stratton in softball, Nancy Williams and Beth Anders in field hockey.

But when it comes to championships, dynasties, and talent, one name stands alone: Anson Dorrance.

Dorrance came to a difficult decision in 1993 when he saw that coaching his North Carolina Tar Heels and the U.S. women's national team was becoming difficult. He could have chosen the red, white, and blue, perhaps knowing that America would eventually embrace the team and its players as cultural icons or becoming the start of a domestic pro soccer league for women.

Instead, Dorrance chose a different route, staying on at North Carolina, turning talent into terrific teams. Make that terrifying teams: Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett, Lorrie Fair, Tiffany Roberts, and Tisha Venturini have been among the ones wearing Tar Heel blue in the past.

But as the national team began seizing a place in American culture, Dorrance has seen his Carolina club slip a little bit in terms of perception. Top prospects have decided to go to other campuses in recent years, and some of his best players were getting called away from spring training or even some college games for national-team duty. It was getting to the point where North Carolina, in 2000, wasn't even favored to get into the ACC final, much less win it.

The same was true on the national scale. North Carolina has not been a dominating team at the close of the 90s and the beginning of the 00s. The names on the roster do not intimidate, despite some national-team duties for some of Dorrance's players.

But, by degrees, Carolina sneaked up on the 2000 Division I field, blistering into the final against UCLA. Perhaps it was a measure of "there-you-go-again," since North Carolina has participated in 18 of the first 19 NCAA Division I title games.

The pundits had to have been wagging their heads in the final when UCLA scored in the 54th minute to take a 1-0 lead on a UNC miscommunication, leading to UNC goalie Jen Branham running into her own defender, leaving UCLA's Lindsay Greco with a free ball and nothing inside the six-yard box.

It was a physical blunder: not what you'd expect from a 15-time NCAA champion. But Dorrance was a poised as could be on the sidelines, his lips touching the top of a plastic cup.

There was time remaining. But this UNC team didn't have the superior talent to win ... right? No Mias, Tiffenys, or Tishas to burst the onion bag?

But the 2000 UNC team showed the "other" side of the Dorrance dynasty -- hard work. Understanding the North Carolina way of soccer is as important as understanding how the U.S. women's soccer team trains and plays. Both teams are fit, play the first minute of the game as hard as the last, and let the athleticism take over if the tactics do not work as well as planned.

Such is what happened when UNC scored twice in the final 15 minutes to win. On the first, attacker Alyssa Ramsey got the ball in the "second-goal" area with her back to the goal, making her push pass to an open Meredith Florance one which yielded meters of open space in front of a yawning goal cage. The finish tied the game.

The final goal was one of pure hustle by Kalli Kamholz, who chased down a 50-50 ball at the corner of the penalty area, and fired a ball which deflected off UCLA defender Leslie Gaston over the line for an own goal.

At the final whistle, there was a feeling that this Carolina team won the 2000 championship through something other than mystique, speed, or strength. This was an earned championship, thanks to players who might not become household names in women's pro soccer. But despite all that, this might be Dorrance's finest hour.

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