- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CARY, N.C. -- Not since Forrest Gump shared his box of chocolates has a park bench played so pivotal a role in a story of fortune as for Whitney Engen.
A junior defender for the University of North Carolina, which enters Friday's semifinal against UCLA with a 23-1-2 record, Engen has gone from a recruit whose name coach Anson Dorrance didn't know to the embodiment of a system that keeps the most decorated program in women's college soccer riding high on the rising tide of parity.
"She is -- and I'm not exaggerating, and I've been doing this for a long time -- she is a national-caliber center back," Dorrance said. "I'm talking about full team, national team, center back. She's playing out of her mind. As a result, this defense that should be getting picked apart is having a tremendous season. Certainly not just because of Whitney, but Whitney has been just a stabilizing force back there for us."
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start back on the park bench.
Dorrance found himself on a bench at a youth soccer tournament a few years back, scouting Lexi Orand, a top recruit then playing for the Slammers Futbol Club. Walid and Ziad Khoury, the brothers in charge of the powerhouse program based in California, told Dorrance he needed to get a look at Orand, a forward who had the kind of attacking skills and creativity the Tar Heels prize. But even as Dorrance watched her display the form that would make her the youngest member of the American entry in the Under-19 World Cup in 2004, his attention kept coming back to another player for the Slammers, a midfielder with a penchant for constructive mayhem.
"All of a sudden, my eye is drawn to this kid that plays the way we play," Dorrance recalled of seeing Engen. "Basically, hell bent for leather, take no prisoners, run around creating havoc. I mean, classic Tar Heel -- a street fighter personality."
Orand ultimately signed with Santa Clara, where she remains a lineup fixture, but Dorrance kept pursuing Engen, a player who hadn't been on his radar until that unanticipated introduction.
"The thing I loved about Whitney is [she was] just tenacious," Dorrance said. "I mean battling for every head ball, sliding in, tackling all over the place, just going from duel to duel to duel. She had the heart of a Tar Heel; that's what I actually loved about her."
Engen signed with North Carolina, but a potential problem arose when she arrived in the fall of 2006 as a part of the nation's top-ranked recruiting class and found the midfield to be a crowded place. Intent on finding a place for her on the field as quickly as possible, Dorrance moved her to unfamiliar territory at center forward. When she asked what to do in the role, her coach told her to do what she normally does: "Create havoc and have a good time."
The results weren't bad by All-American standards let alone novice ones, with Engen contributing 12 goals and 13 assists, including four goals and three assists during the team's run through the NCAA tournament to a national championship.
She also earned the team's self-explanatory "Gift of Fury" award.
"Clips of her her freshman year, she's just running around like crazy," Dorrance said. "Just winning balls for us, scoring goals off headers. And she's got a good strike with both feet, but most of it is her defensive tenacity that allows us to play our style."
That style means North Carolina plays with three defenders and three forwards in a 3-4-3 formation -- unique among the teams in Cary this week and among those that played for a spot in Cary in last week's quarterfinals. The other semifinalists, like the majority of college programs, play with four defenders.
For the Tar Heels, high pressure from the forwards -- the sort Engen provided in droves on the front line her first two seasons -- is a must. Like forechecking in hockey or even a pass rush in football, that pressure ensures opponents don't have time to find the spaces that can exist when there isn't a fourth defender. As Dorrance said, "You can't allow [an opponent's] back four to play with time and space against a flat three; we'd be annihilated."
But the system also requires defenders with a distinct blend of tenacity and discipline. So when North Carolina's offensive production slipped to historic lows last season following the graduations of Heather O'Reilly and Libby Guess, leading Dorrance to recruit half a dozen new forwards for this fall, Engen became the perfect candidate to take her defensive intensity and fill the void left by Jessica Maxwell on defense.
A player who originally caught Dorrance's eye in midfield and excelled as a forward playing alongside a world-class talent such as O'Reilly, Engen spent this past summer learning to become the anchor of North Carolina's defense.
"We've got to tip our hats to what's happened in the back, and I think credit the three kids we have playing back there: Whitney Engen, Kristi Eveland and Rachel Givan and our outstanding pair of goalkeepers," Dorrance said of this team's path to Cary. "But also [chief assistant coach] Bill Palladino, who has reconstructed a defense that basically returned, in the back three, one starter."
Dorrance's favored flat back three isn't a new innovation; it's as much his signature as offensive rebounding is for Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt. But unlike other strategies with a record of championship success -- 18 NCAA titles and counting for the Tar Heels -- imitators remain few and far between. It's not for a lack of proselytizing. Dorrance has welcomed coaching staffs from programs such as Missouri to Chapel Hill for summer tutorials, but at least as he sees it, most coaches are simply more comfortable coaching the style they played during their playing days.
As a result, the Tar Heels are far more comfortable playing against a 4-4-2, or even a 4-3-3, than opponents are at playing against the infrequently seen 3-4-3. The holding midfielder who plays in front of Engen, redshirt sophomore Ali Hawkins usually has a firsthand look at what happens when opponents stumble into uncharted territory.
"One of the struggles that teams have the most is -- when their forward has the ball and they're dribbling at our defense -- is that our defense is dropping off and they don't have anywhere to play it," Hawkins said. "There are no seams, and by the time, I think, they see something and they're ready to play it, we have people doubling back to get on top of them. So I think [the 3-4-3] does pose problems because teams aren't used to it; they aren't used to the pressure."
When UCLA played North Carolina in a national semifinal two years ago, the majority of Bruins were facing the Tar Heels for the first time. The result was a 2-0 North Carolina win in which Dorrance's team had an edge in shots, shots on goal and corner kicks. The good news for the current Bruins, who face North Carolina on Friday, is that while they're the only team in this College Cup that hasn't played the Tar Heels this season, they are led by a core of players who were around for the 2006 game.
"As Anson says, [the 3-4-3] is trying to exploit the weakness in the women's game of being able to handle the ball and deal with pressure," UCLA coach Jill Ellis said. "So we know that they have that depth, so the biggest thing for us is definitely keeping the ball; the ball moves faster than any legs. So if you push the ball around with a good rhythm, keep possession, we'll create chances."
Considering the Bruins enter the game with the nation's stingiest defense, having allowed just five goals in 24 games, there's a decent chance neither side will create a lot of chances. But if a game that features as much individual offensive talent as anyone could hope to find on a field outside the Olympics or World Cup comes down to a battle of defenders, the Tar Heels will put their newly minted star up against anyone.
"I think Whitney is absolutely extraordinary in the back," said Yael Averbuch, a senior co-captain with Hawkins. "There have been so many games this year where she's stepped up and almost single-handedly kept us in the game, where she's come up so big for us."
North Carolina is a soccer empire on a grand scale. Its history could and has filled books, and Dorrance's willingness to buck conventional tactical wisdom and see the field in a different way from his counterparts is a part of that story.
But sometimes the nuts and bolts of what keeps history moving along is no more grandiose than being on the right park bench at the right time.
"And this is all because I went to the field to watch Lexi Orand play," Dorrance said. "And struck out with Lexi and all of a sudden ended up with this frigging diamond."
When you're North Carolina, life is like that.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.