O'Reilly restores Carolina's soccer dynasty with title
After failing to make the College Cup in the previous two seasons, some thought North Carolina was down and out. With one goal, Heather O'Reilly quieted those critics.
CARY, N.C. -- If it wasn't a coronation, Sunday's final of the NCAA Women's College Cup was at least one heck of a celebration of Heather O'Reilly.
After suffering through the disappointment of missing out on the College Cup -- soccer's version of the Final Four -- entirely as a sophomore and junior, Sunday's win was a fitting sendoff for a player who arrived at North Carolina as the next in a line of legends for whom titles were assumed and left as a champion who guided the Tar Heels through a new landscape in college soccer.
"There's a lot of talent in this country, there's a lot of goal scorers in this country, there's a lot of tough teams and great coaches," O'Reilly said. "And I just think what we did this year, getting that knock in the beginning of the season, that one loss, and then us regrouping, and we haven't turned back since."
Despite gray skies that unleashed steady rain just minutes after the final whistle and the first truly chilly temperatures of the week, the festive atmosphere at SAS Park hinted at what was to come.
Fans in the light blue of North Carolina lined up by the hundreds more than three hours before the game, waiting for a chance at a limited number of walk-up tickets available for the final. Mia Hamm, with husband Nomar Garciaparra, watched over the proceedings from a luxury suite, turning heads like the occupant of a royal box. And sightings of other former Carolina greats -- from Cindy Parlow to Lori Chalupny -- spread by word of mouth.
It was just like the good old days.
It didn't matter that North Carolina would start a school-record seven freshmen in the second half, or that Notre Dame had the newly crowned Hermann Trophy winner in Kerri Hanks anchoring an undefeated team. Not so long as the Tar Heels had O'Reilly.
The senior's energy and aggression from the outset were just as valuable in establishing a tone, as her goal was in establishing a lead. Although handed a group of freshmen teammates whom Dorrance roundly praised for their drive, her steady hand had to help alleviate any concerns about nerves.
"Today during the game, it was 1-0 and I just kept screaming, 'Don't settle, we need to keep pressing on for another goal. Don't settle for anything but your best,'" O' Reilly said.
The biggest question about North Carolina entering the season was how the highly touted freshman class would adjust to college life, and how a veteran like O'Reilly would adjust to the sudden infusion of inexperience around her. As it turned out, it was one of the team's biggest assets.
"What was really neat about this year was our seniors and upperclassmen embraced this incredible freshman class that came in," Dorrance said. "And basically, the class embraced them back."
North Carolina's future is a mix of physical marvels, and Casey Nogueira's on-ball wizardry, Tobin Heath's speed, Yael Averbuch's blistering shot and Ali Hawkins' aerial acrobatics were on display at various points during the final. But none of those breathtaking skills were as important as O'Reilly's subtle tactical maneuvers or relentless pursuit of a literal and figurative goal.
With North Carolina's flat back three compacting the midfield, Notre Dame's high-powered offense stumbled to find traction out of the gate. Frustrated most of the day, Hanks was flagged for a couple of quick offsides while trying to time runs behind the disciplined back line of Robyn Gayle, Kristi Eveland and Ariel Harris. As a result, Notre Dame's midfield, led by Jen Buczkowski and Jill Krivacek, found the passes that usually stretched opposing defenses to the breaking point rolling harmlessly into unoccupied space as the Irish front-runners grew wary of the trap.
When Nogueira switched the field with a long pass in the 18th minute and put O'Reilly in alone, there was little doubt what would happen.
"Obviously, she's a world-class player," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said after the game. "And she made a very sophisticated run coming from the inside out, in between two of our backs. I think she caught our outside back, Ashley Jones, a little bit off guard. And of course, her pace, you're going to have a difficult time making up that ground."
Still well outside the 20-yard box, O'Reilly said she was surprised to see Notre Dame keeper Lauren Karas coming out to try and tackle away the ball. After stepping over the sliding Karas, O'Reilly expertly chipped the ball into the net before Notre Dame's defenders could clear the ball off the line. The goal was her 15th career goal in the NCAA Tournament, tying her with Hamm for second place behind Tarpley all-time at North Carolina.
O'Reilly picked up her assist by winning a ball in the air and leaving it for Whitney Engen to cross for Nogueira's header early in the second half, and after holding on as Notre Dame attempted to rally late (the Fighting Irish's lone goal came with O'Reilly on the bench), the title was hers.
For O'Reilly, the championship was the culmination of a senior season that grew from something of an afterthought to an all-out obsession. Still feeling the sting of last year's quarterfinal loss to Florida State and staring at a roster of newcomers, it's no surprise that thoughts of a future at the international level weighed heavily on her mind after spending the spring and summer with Greg Ryan's national team.
But as far back as the summer, even as she prepared for another start with the national team, O'Reilly's focus had begun to shift, with Chapel Hill calling her name.
"I think that early on in the summer, I was so ultra-focused on the U.S. team that Carolina, I don't want to say [was] a sidenote, but I was totally focused on the U.S. team," O'Reilly said in late July. "But more recently, I've just been getting so excited toward going into my senior year. I think the last two years have been really disappointing for me at the end, how we haven't made it to the final four -- last year especially with losing on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. I'm definitely kind of chewing at the bit, wanting to get out there and finish on a high note."
She followed through on that desire to go out on top at North Carolina, even at the short-term expense of her starting spot with the national team. Passing on several international games throughout the fall in order to focus on her college season, and playing only a limited role in the recent World Cup qualifying tournament, O'Reilly watched as former college teammate Lindsay Tarpley settled into the starting role alongside Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly that O'Reilly occupied for the first half of the year.
Of course, starting spots can be regained, and O'Reilly didn't sound like someone suffering from buyer's remorse after realizing her goal of winning a national title.
"It's truly an honor to play for the U.S., of course, to play for your country and score for your country," O'Reilly said after Sunday's win. "But there's something special about playing for the University of North Carolina, the tradition involved and the dynasty that we're now proving that we're continuing."
All the experience that made O'Reilly far and away the most decorated international player at the college level convinced her of exactly what mattered most in the present.
"And I like playing with my school team," O'Reilly said. "Because these are the girls you spend day after day with. They're your best friends, on and off the field, and there's something special about college soccer. The way that we train, you know, after school every day at 2:30 -- I haven't found another training environment that's quite like that."
With a returning cast that includes every key player but O'Reilly and Elizabeth Guess, the Tar Heels might well roll to multiple titles in the next three years. Or they might suffer through bad luck in the increasingly competitive world of women's college soccer and fall short of championship glory.
But for one day, all the glory of the past and all the promise of the future seemed to coalesce around O'Reilly.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.