Commentary

Seniors hope to lead Tar Heels to first NCAA title in a decade

Updated: November 9, 2007, 3:52 PM ET
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | Special to ESPN.com

Rachel Dawson laughs at the word that friends and coaches use most often when describing her.

[+] EnlargeRachel Dawson
UNC Athletics CommunicationsRachel Dawson's leadership on and off the field has helped lead No. 1 UNC.

"You think I'm competitive?" the fifth-year senior says. "You should see my brother Andrew. At his high school wrestling matches, he'd get so tweaked up that the crowd would chant 'Psycho' at him. He was that type of kid."

That "type" personifies the athletic prowess of all eight Dawson children raised in a four-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Berlin, N.J. "I don't know where they get it, because I'm not really athletic myself," laughs Karen Dawson, their mother. "My husband is competitive and athletic, so maybe that's it."

Whichever gene pool it stems from, their talent is undeniable. Participating in various sports throughout childhood, the six Dawson sisters were particularly drawn to field hockey. They each played on the successful Eastern High School squad, a powerhouse program that hasn't lost a game since 1999. The two eldest sisters, Natalie and Sarah, had accomplished careers at the University of Iowa and with the U.S. national team.

But it is Rachel, sister No. 3, who has captained the top-ranked Tar Heels through an undefeated season and an ACC championship. Only Wake Forest came close to beating UNC this year, losing twice by one goal in overtime. The Demon Deacons' most recent defeat came last Sunday in the ACC finals, when Dawson's penalty stroke score eliminated third-ranked Wake and moved the Tar Heels one step closer to claiming a fifth NCAA championship.

Head coach Karen Shelton, now in her 27th year at the Heels' helm, credits the leadership of her seven seniors for her team's 20-0 record. "This year has been remarkable in the size and depth of this senior class," Shelton says.

This embarrassment of riches prompted a concerned Shelton to make John Maxwell's "Talent Is Never Enough" required reading. Each week, two team members presented a chapter to the squad, discussing how courage and perseverance could be applied to their success.

[+] EnlargeKaren Shelton
UNC Athletics CommunicationsCoach Karen Shelton and North Carolina's quest for a title begins on Saturday against Stanford.

"We had so many strong players but you can't win on talent alone," senior Laree Beans says. "It reminded us that no matter how many good players you have, you need the intangibles."

Whether it was Maxwell's words or the stacked roster, the Heels orchestrated a knockout season, leading the nation in scoring. Defensively, they shut out nine straight opponents from Sept. 8 to Oct. 12, tying an NCAA record. William & Mary managed two goals in its Oct. 12 loss to a Heels team playing without its top three scorers: Dawson, senior Jesse Gey and freshman Katelyn Falgowski.

Following the trio's return two days later, the Heels shut out their next four opponents. "I think what's really allowed us to succeed is that every single member of this team, whether on the field or not, does a great job of bringing something that the person next to them can't bring," Dawson says. "We see each others' strengths and weaknesses and play off of them."

In Dawson's case, weaknesses are hard to find. While the midfielder led the team in scoring, defense has been her benchmark. As a freshman in 2003, Dawson led the team in goals and was named ACC Freshman of the Year. Her sophomore season, she was an All-American and the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year, an honor bestowed on her again this season.

But with her junior year came major change. While she again led UNC in scoring, Dawson missed five games while representing the U.S. in the Junior World Cup. "That was tough because it's hard to establish yourself as a leader when you're absent," Dawson says.

Then came another test: As her team prepared to defend its 2004 ACC championship, Dawson had to choose between playing for UNC or the national team. She chose the latter -- and the Tar Heels lost in the ACC finals. "I feel really badly about maybe making a decision that benefited me but hurt the team," Dawson says. "It was tough either way."

That spring, Dawson became the only collegiate player on the World Cup team. She redshirted her 2006 season as she helped the U.S. to a sixth-place finish. During international competition, Dawson was a finalist for the 2006 Young Player of the Year award, the first U.S. player ever to be nominated. She also transitioned temporarily from leader to learner, taking advice from some of the nation's best professional players.

[+] EnlargeJesse Gey
UNC Athletics CommunicationsJesse Gey's 11 goals scored ranks second only to Dawson's 18.

That maturity, Shelton says, has been the Dawson difference this season. "She has one of the greatest field hockey brains I've ever worked with," Shelton says. "She's a competitive genius who uses her body incredibly well and really knows the field."

Shelton hopes that skill is familial: Rachel's sister Meghan is a UNC freshman who's seen action in 15 games this season.

And while Shelton's quarter-of-a-century tenure has transformed UNC field hockey into a national powerhouse, she knows that several top programs stand in the way of the Tar Heels' first national title in a decade.

It all begins Saturday against Stanford. "There's eight or 10 teams lurking that are really strong," Shelton says. "We have to be prepared."

Dawson admits that while she isn't ready to end her college career (she'll graduate from UNC's School of Business in December), she's determined her squad will finish on top.

"I believe winning is a habit, something you build up to all season," Dawson says. "You don't play not to lose; you play to win. If I keep focused on the fact that out of every game, someone has to win and someone has to lose, I put myself in the best position to be that winner."

And she says she's not so competitive.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.