- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As UCLA took the field for its allotted practice time at an otherwise empty Aggie Soccer Stadium on Thursday, Danesha Adams and Val Henderson peeled off from their teammates and took an indirect route toward the team's bench. As they moved down one sideline and across the top of the 18-yard box to the other side of the field, the pair of seniors walked -- or in Henderson's case, playfully stomped -- over the names of the three other schools participating in the College Cup, each one painted on the grass in white letters several yards wide in a different corner of the field.
No disrespect to USC, Florida State and Notre Dame, but after reaching the College Cup in each of their first three seasons in Westwood only to come up short in the end, Adams and Henderson are tired of being someone else's stepping stone to a championship.
"It's a great experience just to be able to say you've been in the final four all four years, but sometimes being able to say that is not really what we want," Adams said. "We want to be able to leave here with something that's special. And we haven't done that yet. So right now, for us, we're going a fourth year, but maybe this year we can come home a little more happy than we have the past three."
Plenty of seniors pack up at the end of their college years with unfinished business, but Adams and Henderson have a more exclusive claim than overdue library books, unpaid parking tickets or toothpaste-filled holes in the wall. Other than the University of North Carolina, which reached the season's final weekend every year between 1982 and 2003, UCLA's current senior class is just the sixth to play in four consecutive College Cups.
Thanks mostly to those same dynastic Tar Heels winning 17 titles during that run and another last season, only the Notre Dame seniors of 1997 managed to matriculate with a championship (won as sophomores in 1995) out of the previous five classes -- a group that included Massachusetts in 1986 and 1987, Santa Clara in 1999 and UCLA in 2006.
To avoid adding Adams and Henderson to that legacy, the Bruins must alter another.
Playing in its fifth consecutive College Cup, dating back to the season before Adams and Henderson came aboard, UCLA has become synonymous in women's college soccer with unfulfilled expectations. Like Mary Levy's Buffalo Bills and Bobby Cox's Atlanta Braves, that reputation tends to ignore the substantial body of work that allowed those Bruins teams to reach the semifinals and beyond (they've lost in the championship game twice, including a 4-0 loss against Portland in College Station two years ago).
But success at the elite level of any sport is ultimately measured by titles, something neither Adams nor Henderson shy away from, and a reality that's all the more true for teams representing the first university to win 100 national championships in men's and women's athletics.
"We had a chance last year to be the team that got that 100, and we didn't do so," Adams said of the milestone reached by the women's water polo team. "You're dealing with a great university, you're dealing with some of the great athletes that ever came out to play any sport, and you're dealing with even the great coaches, like John Wooden. You're dealing with a legacy just in its own. You want to be a part of that legacy."
To that end, Adams and Henderson, friends and roommates during their four years and starters almost from the moment they set foot on campus, took on leadership roles this season for a team intent on changing a mentality that at least one player felt was lacking in years past.
"This team is the first team since we've been here that actually has heart and will fight back," junior Erin Hardy said. "In the last final fours, we'll be down a goal and we won't be hungry."
The top-seeded Bruins needed that spirit along a treacherous path to College Station. UCLA trailed Virginia, one of the nation's stingiest defensive teams, by a goal with fewer than 20 minutes to play in the third round and watched a 2-1 lead against Portland in the quarterfinals evaporate in the final minute. Both times they rallied to win, with Adams scoring the golden goal against Portland in the second overtime period.
"We had that mentality that we refuse to lose," Adams said. "We came from behind both games. There is a sense of urgency on this team I think this year that helps us a lot."
Adams will finish her career as UCLA's No. 2 all-time leading scorer with however many points she adds to her current total of 140. Henderson is already the career leader in wins (76) and shutouts (38) in Westwood. No two positions in soccer are easier to measure through numbers than striker and keeper, the two people most directly responsible for whether or not the ball goes in the net. But more than personal accolades, the numbers for Adams and Henderson are the product of four years' worth of experiences, including the disappointment of three College Cups and a fourth-place finish together with the United States Under-20 national team at the 2006 World Championships in Russia.
The lesson, even learned the hard way, is clear.
"The game never changes; the game stays the same," Adams said. "The field is the same size, the same length, the same everything. The goals are the same height, nothing changes. As long as you make the game bigger than what it really is, that's where problems start to come in. I think people start to get more nervous when that happens. It's the same game; we've been playing it since we were little.
"Now the stakes might be a little higher but at the end of the day, the game stays the same."
It's the paradox of championships that when nothing else is normal -- when the television cameras are on, the stadium is full and history is on the line -- success comes down to executing like a team worthy of the spotlight while remaining oblivious to its glare.
For Adams and Henderson, that means trying to play with all the experience and none of the weight of the last four years.
"We want to contribute more than we have," Henderson said. "We've done a good job of being a contender and letting our school be proud of us. But you've got to have that feeling that we could do more."
Notes from the College Cup
If one of Michelle Weissenhofer's flip throw doesn't end up on the nightly highlight reel of top plays this weekend, something is seriously amiss. A gymnast in her childhood, Weissenhofer picked up the trick from a teammate of her mom's in an over-30 league and honed her acrobatic acumen at the gym and then in her backyard.
Although the Notre Dame sophomore isn't the only player in college soccer who makes a habit of the flip, she's possibly the most adept at it. And while it's among the most entertaining plays in sports, the flip is also a tactical weapon that gives the Fighting Irish the ability to put the ball into an opponent's 18-yard box in a way usually reserved for free kicks.
Not that Weissenhofer has gone unscathed for her efforts, at least in terms of her pride.
"Last year, funny story, it was my freshman year and it was the first year we wore long sleeve jerseys," Weissenhofer recounted. "So the jerseys were a little longer and it was over my hands a little bit. We were actually playing USC, it was in a tournament, and so I went to go throw it in, and I got up and I didn't have the ball – it was behind me. Because of the sleeves it had slipped and was on the ground behind me. The crowd laughed and I just kind of waved and then I went and did it again and we actually scored."
Among its many attributes, the University of Southern California is known for having one of the best film schools in the world. And whatever happens before the final credits roll on his team's season, USC coach Ali Khosroshahin is emerging as a character worthy of Scorsese or De Palma in a soccer world more accustomed to characters Cameron Crowe might bring to life.
Asked for his take on UCLA assistant coach B.J. Snow's assertion that it was actually more difficult to prepare for a familiar opponent than an unfamiliar opponent at this point of the season, Khosroshahin doused the question in lighter fluid and tossed a match on it.
"No it's not," Khosroshahin shot back. "It's not hard to prepare for them. We know what to expect. We know what they're going to do. We're ready. Bring 'em."
Commenting later on the businesslike approach his team is taking to the program's first appearance in a College Cup, the first-year coach offered himself little wiggle room.
"I shared with [the players] the demands that have been placed on us by our athletic director and that we get judged on national championships not on the final four," Khosroshain said.
Mark Krikorian has coached a lot of players during his career, from college stars like India Trotter at Florida State to seasoned international legends like Kelly Smith in the WUSA, so it carries more than a little weight when he starts talking about the best anything he's ever coached, as he did in discussing injured defender Sarah Wagenfuhr.
"She's as good of a leader as I've come across in all of my years of coaching," Krikorian said.
Last year, Notre Dame held off Florida State in a semifinal despite having to play without one of its most talented defenders in Carrie Dew. Florida State hopes to return the favor Friday with Wagenfuhr watching from the sidelines after suffering a season-ending knee injury 10 games into the season. Not that the junior has vanished from the scene.
"Sarah Wagenfuhr has continued to be a fantastic leader for our team, but not on the field," Krikorian said. "In the locker room, picking the team up, helping out with little things, encouraging the group and so on."
Krikorian admitted he initially thought the injury might be too much for a young team to overcome, but he singled out senior Libby Gianeskis and sophomore Becky Edwards, a natural midfielder now playing in the middle of the back line, for stepping up and filling the void on the field.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.