- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame was already a national power in soccer when Melissa Henderson and Courtney Barg, then little more than Texas toddlers, first laced up their cleats. But the two players, whose friendship predates their arrival on the occasionally frozen tundra of northern Indiana, will have a lot to say about how close to the top of the soccer mountain the Fighting Irish remain for the next three seasons.
Now sophomores, Henderson and Barg played key roles last season for a team that suffered its lone loss in the national championship game. In the span of a few seconds in a semifinal against Stanford, they announced their place in the line of succession at a program long ruled by some the sport's biggest stars.
Set up to the right of the 18-yard box in Stanford's end, Henderson chested down a throw-in. Her back to the goal, Cardinal defenders in front and behind, she flicked the ball over the head of the oncoming defender and then headed it back down to her feet as she turned toward goal. After one light touch with her left foot, she cut the ball back against her momentum to avoid a third opponent, took one more touch to create space and fired a pass through the middle of the box that split two more Cardinal players.
Having timed her run perfectly as Henderson maneuvered, Barg settled the waist-high pass with a raised foot and slipped a shot just under the sprawling keeper's arm for the game's first goal.
It was simply a sensational display of technical ability from both players, executed on the most intense stage, using skills only a handful of their peers can match.
"They're very, very coachable; they're sponges," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said recently. "They want information; they're always looking to learn. They've got, both of them, great personalities. Court's kind of quiet and kind of had that quiet sense of humor. And Mel's just one that she's always there, always happy about things. They're a pleasure to work with. And I would go as far as to say, right now, they're going to be two of the best players in the country by the end of the year, if they're not already that."
Born a little more than two months apart in Dallas, Barg and Henderson met before they were 10 years old, and vowed to someday play together in college. They didn't market themselves as a package deal, and Notre Dame wasn't their specific target at the time. But when last fall arrived, so did both friends in South Bend, ready to live out what they had planned all those years before.
That the pair is inseparable is illustrated by the stories of their sharing earphones on bus rides, one bud in Barg's ear and the other in Henderson's. Perhaps the bonds of friendship trump the selfish pleasures of stereo sound. Then again, after hearing the roommates discuss the state of their living space in South Bend, maybe it's also simply necessary insurance against misplaced equipment.
"I would say we're both kind of messy," Henderson offered in a valiant attempt at solidarity.
"Granted, I am not the cleanest person," Barg countered, unwilling to take this particular indictment for the team. "But Melissa -- I wish this was a photo article and I could take you to our room. Let's just say, if you were to split the room in half, you can't see the floor on Melissa's side."
None of this, not the obvious bond between them or the skills they possess, assures their place at the forefront of what would be the program's third national championship. The inexperience of a team trying to replace four senior starters was on display in a 6-0 loss against top-ranked North Carolina at home, a defeat followed by a pair of 2-0 losses against Santa Clara and Stanford on the road last weekend.
Henderson and Barg talked about the challenges of adjusting as freshmen to a college soccer environment that demanded their attention beyond their 90 minutes on the field -- attention to details like eating right before games and making full use of film sessions. Last year, their talent was enough of a finished product. Ability spoke for itself; they didn't have to say more with veterans like Brittany Bock, Carrie Dew, Elise Weber and Kerri Hanks around to lead by deeds or words.
But now it's their team and more is required.
"Those two have to be offensive leaders of our team," Waldrum said. "And I think even [Jessica Schuveiller, a sophomore who played with Barg and Henderson in Texas] as well because she's in that same group as only a sophomore. Those kids have to be our seniors, even though they're only sophomores. They have to step up and take some ownership of that. ... That's one thing we talked about [after the North Carolina loss] is having them be more -- they're so respectful of the older players on the team, but they've got to understand it's OK. The rest of the players recognize their abilities and they want them to take on more of those leadership roles."
Taking ownership of a team, let alone a team representing one the sport's flagship programs, may be one of the only things on a soccer field that doesn't come naturally to the affable Texans. But at least each has a friend to lean on during the learning process.
"It was such a good experience the first year," Barg said. "I don't know how I would have done it otherwise. I think she was the one that kept me sane, kept me laughing."
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.