- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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STORRS, Conn. -- It's easy to overlook Sarah MacIsaac, a senior defender on the University of Connecticut women's soccer team. For starters, she's listed at 5-foot-2. But as a key member of a team that is itself overlooked, in part because of the program's past shortcomings, she stands out as a reminder that a little fight has gone a long way for the Huskies.
Last Sunday's 2-0 win at home against then-No. 21 West Virginia earned MacIsaac and the Huskies sole possession of first place in the Big East's American Division. Now 10-2-1 on the season, they head to DePaul and No. 22 Notre Dame this weekend with a chance to exceed last season's win total more than a week before the first Halloween trick-or-treaters hit the streets and the Big East tournament gets underway. In every respect, from who is playing to how they are playing, they look little like the teams that squandered home-field advantage in the past two NCAA Tournaments, losing in the first round against Boston University in 2005 and in the second round against top-seeded Texas last season.
MacIsaac isn't the star of the revival in Storrs, overshadowed by the likes of midfielder and All-American candidate Meghan Schnur, junior defender Brittany Taylor and a freshman class already earning rave reviews. Initially a part-time player who started just four times in her first two seasons before she emerged as a regular in coach Len Tsantiris' lineup last season, MacIsaac's slow ascent was perhaps not surprising for a player who wasn't recruited and didn't commit until February of her final year of high school -- mostly because, growing up in the coastal town of Bedford, Nova Scotia, she didn't even know the option existed.
"I had never heard of the NCAA," MacIsaac said, laughing, after playing her final regular season home game Sunday. "I had never heard of UConn; the Yukon I know is up north with polar bears and stuff."
But even as a raw freshman who, in her own words, "didn't know anything about anything" when she arrived for her first season, MacIsaac offered a glimpse of both the potential she now is fulfilling and the tone she is helping set for the entire team.
Shrouded though they were by two dark bruises stemming from a broken nose she earned in a win against Pittsburgh last Friday, Schnur's eyes lit up Sunday afternoon as she spun the story about her on-field introduction to the Canadian newcomer four years earlier. A freshman on the previous season's NCAA Tournament finalist team who was preparing to redshirt the 2004 season in order to play for the United States in the Under-19 World Championships in Thailand, Schnur was going through the motions in a preseason scrimmage with the Huskies when MacIsaac, now her closest friend on the team, made an appearance.
"I was trying not to get injured, because I had to go to [national team] camp," Schnur recalled. "So I was just going in, hanging out, not really going crazy 100 percent, and this little one just comes in cleats up into me and just two-foots me, and the ball flies somewhere else. And I just turn around, and I'm like, 'Who is that? Who is that girl?'"
The mock indignation in Schnur's voice as she told the story confirmed she wasn't inquiring about MacIsaac's identity to better sing the praises of the precious freshman. But time, not to mention the knowledge to look down whenever a rush of air shot past her on the practice field, increased Schnur's affection for the relentless defender.
Whether giving up her body in a textbook tackle or offering the kind of subtle, two-handed encouragement to an opponent's lower back that only experience can teach while going for a ball in the air at midfield, MacIsaac is the type of player teammates adore and opponents can't stand: a self-made player who spent endless hours on her own in the gym those first few years, kicking a ball against the wall to work on the touch and foot skills Schnur said now rank among the best on the team.
"She is so athletic and so strong, and she just has so much fight to her and so much grit," Schnur said. "And I think the best part about her is she's never content. She's always striving to become better. She came in as someone who is going to work really hard for you, and you know that if you put her out here, she's not going to stop until she's laying on the ground."
Only last year, Connecticut's back line was such a pronounced weakness that Tsantiris moved Taylor, one of the more talented young attacking players in the college game, from forward to defense to shore up a group that allowed nine goals in a 1-3-0 stretch against North Carolina, Duke, Santa Clara and UCLA. Now, with Taylor anchoring the middle, junior Stephanie Labbe coming into her own in goal and MacIsaac harassing opponents and pushing the counterattack from outside, the Huskies are one of the stingiest teams around. The shutout against the Mountaineers was the team's sixth clean sheet in its past seven games, and it has yet to allow multiple goals in a game.
"It's definitely a communication thing," MacIsaac said. "We're starting to really get used to the way each other plays. Like, I know in certain situations, Brittany [Taylor] is going to step and I'm going to drop. And other times, [Lauren] Ebert is going to win the head balls and I'm going to drop. I'm not the head ball winner, clearly. A lot of it is about knowing our roles and understanding what the person next to us is going to do, what their tendencies are and what they're comfortable with, and playing to their strengths."
What worked on a small scale for the back line is becoming something of a philosophy for an entire team growing comfortable with its moving parts.
MacIsaac, Labbe, Taylor and Ebert were the only Huskies to start each of the team's first 13 games, while defender Jessica Diakun was one of only four players to top 1,000 minutes in those games. The rest of the lineup has been far more fluid, with four freshmen starting at least one game and one freshman, Erin Clark, challenging Schnur for the team scoring lead despite averaging just 35 minutes a game.
Instead of acting as a divisive force, the mix of old and new has blended almost seamlessly. Weary of both the physical toll of being part of teams that were outworked on the field and the mental toll of not having enough fun off the field, veterans like MacIsaac, Schnur and senior Karyn Riviere entered the summer intent on changing the culture. Before the team's first game, associate head coach Sarah Barnes noted the team already had better social cohesion off the field and a stronger work ethic on the field than recent editions of the team.
"We play for each other every second that we're out there," Schnur said. "Off the field, we're a bunch of goofballs. We laugh at each other, we make jokes and coach gets in on it too. It's just such a great atmosphere, and it's one that I really have never been in before. It makes me proud to be a part of this team."
That camaraderie was on full display before the game against West Virginia, as the five seniors, decked out in paper tiaras, were honored before the team's final home game of the regular season. Often an awkward and emotional affair, senior day in Storrs had more laughs than tears. It wasn't until the whistle that the Huskies turned serious, controlling possession throughout most of the game against a quality Mountaineers team.
"Our team chemistry is unreal," MacIsaac said. "I think we all just have a really decent amount of respect for each other and just let each other be individuals. And a lot of the time it turns out pretty funny. It translates to wanting to work hard for each other on the field. When everyone is working hard, the game is fun. The game is really fun, because you see some magic happen and it gives you chills."
Ranked No. 15 in the NSCAA poll this week, the Huskies have yet to attract much national attention, despite a season in which the polls have seen a steady stream of teams coming and going. After opening the season ranked No. 16, Connecticut nearly fell out of the NSCAA Top 25 altogether for crimes no worse than a pair of 1-0 losses against Stanford and Penn State, games in which the Huskies outshot both the Cardinal and Nittany Lions. A trip to Notre Dame this Sunday offers another no-win situation, in which a win could be chalked up to a down year for the Fighting Irish and a loss at one of the toughest road venues in college soccer could be used as proof that the Huskies still are a pretender.
"We chalk it up to they're just polls," Barnes said. "But it is surprising to me a little bit. Early on, we lost two games to Stanford and Penn State. Both were ranked very highly, and we dropped out of the polls entirely. So I think it's indicative of the fact that polls don't always mean much. Or people who are doing the polls aren't seeing all of the games, so they see somebody is undefeated or they see somebody that doesn't have a loss or whatever. What your record is versus who you play doesn't always even out. And I think polls look at records; they don't look at who you're playing, how you're playing."
Just as it's easy to overlook a player like MacIsaac in search of someone who better fits the profile of what one of the nation's most underrated defenders should look like.
"I'm not the most technical kid," MacIsaac said with a grin. "I'm not always going to make the perfect pass, I don't always have the best vision, but I'm always, always going to play with heart and work hard."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.