- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The 2009 women's soccer season came to an end Sunday with North Carolina's 20 NCAA national championship, but there is still plenty to talk about. Here are 5 Burning Questions on what's to come.
1. Who should win this season's Hermann Trophy?
There was something aesthetically pleasing about celebrating the winner of the Hermann Trophy during the soccer buzz associated with College Cup, as last happened when Kerri Hanks was announced the winner the day before the 2006 national championship game. But at least this year, January's ceremony in St. Louis could offer a more fitting farewell to Stanford forward Kelley O'Hara than did the final minutes of Sunday's championship game against North Carolina, if she emerges the winner from a field currently narrowed to 15 semifinalists.
Doing what she always did -- playing with ferocious intensity in pursuit of the ball and a goal -- O'Hara picked up her second yellow card on a tackle from behind against Carolina's Whitney Engen and finished the game watching the Cardinal play a person down as they mounted a final furious challenge.
That memory shouldn't outweigh O'Hara's entire College Cup experience, which also included a spectacular goal in the semifinal against UCLA, or a season in which she earned the right to be called the best player in women's college soccer. Goal-scorers often get almost all the credit and recognition for what they finish but others set up. In O'Hara's case, 26 goals actually understate the value of her total contributions. There are half a dozen or more worthy candidates; none deserves it more.
2. How big a statement did the Pac-10 make this season?
As always with questions that don't have an absolute answer, any answer depends on where you choose to place emphasis. Eight teams out of the Pac-10 made the NCAA tournament, the most ever from the league and as many as the ACC (considering the two leagues combined for a quarter of the postseason field, it's easy to place them in their own tier atop the sport). Of the eight Pac-10 entrants, only Arizona State and USC exited in the first round and both did so via penalty kicks.
ACC proponents will note that, in addition to winning the title, the league also produced five of eight quarterfinalists. And they're right, although it's worth noting that given the concentration of weaker automatic qualifiers east of the Mississippi, seeds in those regions often see slightly easier draws than Pac-10 and West Coast Conference teams.
So did the Pac-10 prove it's better than the ACC? Probably not, although you're free to spin the evidence as you please. What it did prove is that there's another conference out there capable of producing three, four and even five NCAA tournament-quality games on a weekly basis.
3. What does North Carolina do for an encore?
Or more precisely, what can North Carolina do for a 21st encore as NCAA champion?
This season's championship brought to a close a remarkable four-year run for a senior class that played big minutes from the moment it arrived in Chapel Hill. It also means the Tar Heels have more holes than a golf course to fill before taking the field next season.
And unlike 2006, there's not a returning player like Heather O'Reilly to build around.
That's not to say the cupboard is bare; it never is at North Carolina. Among seniors-to-be, Meghan Klingenberg has the talent, international experience and personality to be a dynamic presence, and coach Anson Dorrance has made no secret of his admiration for Ali Hawkins as a leader. Current freshman Amber Brooks could be one of several returning sophomores and juniors primed for breakout seasons with more minutes. And the recruiting trail is rarely cruel to the Tar Heels, this time netting a class that includes Kealia Ohai (Alta, Utah), widely considered the nation's top signee.
4. Could the 2010 Under-20 World Cup actually help for once?
For really the first time since the inaugural U-20 event in Canada abutted the start of the 2002 college season, the Under-20 World Cup shouldn't be a significant factor for the college season with which it shares the calendar year. With the event scheduled for July 2010 in Germany, players should be available for duty once the college season begins in mid-to-late August.
So barring unforeseen injuries, the event could actually prove a boon to the colleges with players involved, providing those individuals with experience at a high level and the conditioning and polish to carry directly into the fall schedule. And while the United States has yet to qualify (that comes January in an eight-team tournament in Guatemala), let alone name a team, the roster for recent camps and earlier events offers a few clues that it could be good news for Boston College.
While other programs may have equal or greater representation on the final roster, the Eagles could reap the biggest benefits if Kristen Mewis and Vicki DiMartino make it, as is seemingly likely. Both excelled at the Under-17 World Cup, and for a Boston College team that reached the program's first NCAA tournament quarterfinal this season, the extra high-level competition for two stars is invaluable.
5. Which team is the best bet to bring new blood to the College Cup?
College soccer's signature event had a distinctly familiar look in recent seasons. Since Portland and Penn State appeared in 2005, North Carolina, Notre Dame, UCLA, Florida State and Stanford have claimed all but one spot (USC's championship run in 2007).
Building on this season's success, Boston College is a strong candidate to shake up the mix next year in Cary, N.C. But the Eagles aren't alone. Echoing comments Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum made at this year's College Cup, the Big East is a league worth watching. Long overrated (somewhat) and its value inflated by Notre Dame's success, the conference was as competitive from top to bottom this season as at any point in recent memory. And both Rutgers and West Virginia look to be on the verge of bigger things.
Both lose cornerstone players -- keeper Erin Guthrie at Rutgers and midfielder Carolyn Blank at West Virginia -- but both also return a wealth of talent from successful teams. Like so many teams looking to make the leap from Sweet 16 potential to the season's final weekend, a lot hinges on going from teams that grind out 2-1 and 1-0 wins through good coaching and good defense to teams that can put up numbers on the scoreboard.
What separates them from other would-be contenders are the options available to do that.