Why Players Should be Lobsters

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By Tim Nash

So, I heard this story the other day and decided to tell it to the two teams of 13-and 14-year-old girls I coach.

My players, most of them anyway, like story time. They have learned to expect something completely unexpected, and it often leads to an interesting conversation. Others, those on the other end of the “Things I Find Interesting Scale,” just listen and kind of give me that open-mouth stare while thinking, “What the hell is he talking about.”

Anyway, this story was an attempt to explain to my players one of the challenges girls that age face — getting out of their comfort zone and testing themselves in difficult environments. That is, after all, where the most progress can be made. But every time some of my girls go out on the field, they will place themselves in their comfort zone, that area of the field they are used to, the spot that offers no surprises.

I move them around, pull them aside and talk to them about trying new and different things, but they are sucked back to that familiar place. Everyone wants to do what they are good at, and that’s how they spend their time. It seems that the players who make the most progress are the ones who get mad at themselves for not being able to meet a new challenge. They will keep at it until they master it, like the player who got so mad at her inability to juggle, she worked at it until her personal best went from 12 to 438. Continue reading

We Never Got Enough of Kelly Smith

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By Tim Nash

Way back in 1998, I had been writing about women’s college soccer for nine years and had seen many of the greatest players in the world.

The 1998 was the year the University of Florida won the national championship with senior Danielle Fotopoulos, a freshman named Abby Wambach and another future national team player in Heather Mitts. Angela Hucles was staring at the University of Virginia. Santa Clara featured Danielle Slaton, Aly Wagner and Mandy Clemens. There was a sophomore at Notre Dame named Anne Makinen, a tremendous midfielder from Finland, and a senior named Shannon Boxx. The University of North Carolina featured Cindy Parlow, Tiffany Roberts, Lorrie Fair and Staci Wilson, all U.S. national team players.

When I called Notre Dame coach Chris Petrucelli to ask him who, in his opinion, should be named the national player of the year, he mentioned none of them.

“The best player in the country is at Seton Hall,” he said.

Wait, what? Seton Hall? The Pirates finished the ’98 season 11-6-1.

“Kelly Smith,” Petrucelli said, “is phenomenal.” Continue reading

UNC’s Tradition of Excellence

By Tim Nash

ansonIt has to be some kind of soccer factory, doesn’t it? The University of North Carolina women’s soccer program must be a place that attracts the top young players in the country, puts them on an assembly line and re-shapes them into the type of player that adds to the bottom line — wins and trophies.

There’s no other explanation, is there? The factory must be dripping with stress, littered with stories of failure and flame-outs. Somewhere within that soccer mill, there must be a dark room where all the pieces not good enough are tossed aside and forgotten.

How else could one school win so much and lose so little? Come on, 800 wins? In just 38 years? That’s an average of 21 wins a year for four decades. The players can’t be having any fun. It must be like a boot camp. And we are expected to believe that all those games were won by one coach? Forget it.

That last part is true. The rest are myths. On October 10 in a come-from-behind victory over Wake Forest, Anson Dorrance won his 800th game as head coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

“And it was in 900 games,” says Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, a former Tar Heel now the head coach of the University of Central Florida. “That makes it more impressive. It’s unbelievable.”

Nine-hundred games exactly. Dorrance’s career record after the Oct. 10 win was 800-65-35.

Think that’s unbelievable? Here’s a sampling of the program’s success: In the 90s, the Tar Heels had a record of 238-7-3. They once went 101 games without losing. In a stretch between 1990 and 1992, UNC won 92 straight games. His 1987 team outscored its 24 opponents 98-2, and one of the goals they allowed was an own-goal. Carolina has won 21 NCAA championships and there have only been 31 of them. In 1992, the Tar Heels went 25-0, scored 132 goals and allowed 11, never scoring more than nine in any game. Over the history of the program, the team has scored 2,869 more goals than it has allowed.

It starts and ends with Dorrance, a highly intelligent, ultra-competitive, self-diagnosed introvert who happened to become a soccer coach and found more than enough to keep himself challenged and engaged by working with a revolving group of college-aged athletes. He has found ways to get his players to perform at their best for both themselves and the team at the same time.

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Ashlyn Harris’s Higher Purpose

By Tim Nash

harris“I live in constant pain and take powerful pain killers and muscle relaxers just to be able to get out of bed in the morning, and I’ve considered suicide more than once because of my condition. I can say the games in the NWSL have given me a reason to live. Thank you for being a wonderful human being, role model and great athlete to watch and follow. Your will to win is a breath of fresh air to me and lets me live each day.”

Ashlyn Harris gets a lot of letters like that. She also has strangers — kids, teenagers, middle aged women — come up to her after Orlando Pride or Women’s national team games and say things like, “You’ve given me purpose again. You’ve saved my life.”

Life-changing is an over-used, watered-down phrase we use to describe new jobs, books or movies, and the newest innovations in technology. But here’s a 31-year-old soccer player having an enormous impact on the most personal aspect of lives of people suffering with depression or addiction, people she has never met.

They’ve found something to identify with in this shark-loving surfer who once hit a bully across the face with a dead catfish. There’s something about her that draws people in, makes the feel safe. Maybe it’s the compassionate, understanding ear, or simply her willingness to listen that makes people feel better about their situation. More likely, it’s that in Harris, they see someone who has been where they are, someone who has struggled with depression, witnessed addiction, had thoughts of harming herself.

Whatever the reasons, she’s changing lives. That’s what Ashlyn Harris has chosen to do with her life. That’s where her passion lies, and in doing so she has done herself as much good as she has others.

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Aly Wagner Makes Herself Heard

By Tim Nash

This isn’t the first time aly1Aly Wagner had the rising star label attached to her. The first time, believe it or not, was 25 years ago.

Way back when Tom Hanks was Forest Gump, George H.W. Bush was in the White House and the internet was one-year old, Wagner entered a juggling contest that served as a fundraiser for her youth soccer league in San Jose, Calif. As others tried to keep the ball up, Aly went about her business. After 20 minutes, she was told to stop. She had juggled the ball 1,500 times and was declared the winner. That was in 1990. She was 10.

The rising star label stuck with her through her youth soccer years with the Central Valley Mercury and an All-American career at Santa Clara University. It even stuck through the early part of her time with the U.S. national team where injuries robbed her of much of what could have been. Still, she played 131 times for the USA and ranks ninth on the all-time assist list with 42.

A true soccer-junkie, Wagner spent her time away from the field watching any and all available televised games, and like all soccer-junkies she spent a fair amount of time talking back to the TV. Today, she is offering observations and opinions on games televised by Fox. The rising star label is back.

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School First for Duke’s Taylor Racioppi

By Tim Nash

It has not been a typical year for Taylor Racioppi.

racioppiIt started late last spring when the Duke University sophomore had to choose between playing for the Blue Devils or playing for the USA in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup. She couldn’t do both. Priorities of the two institutions were conflicting and players invited to U20 camp, Racioppi included, had to choose.

The U20 World Cup kicks off on November 14 in Papua New Guinea, the same times as the NCAA tournament heats up.

Racioppi had to weigh all the factors. She was a veteran of the U20 national team, the second-youngest player on the roster at the 2014 U20 World Cup in Canada. She had played for the U19, U18, U17 and U15 national teams. But last fall as a freshman, she led Duke in points and helped lead the Blue Devils into the NCAA final where they fell to Penn State.

“To be a freshman in college and to have that be your first year of college soccer, that was absolutely incredible,” says Racioppi. “Obviously, it was a tough road. No team gets there easily. That was something I will never forget. I hope I can top it here at Duke with the amazing team we have this year. Last year was so exciting and we got so close, but I have a feeling we are going to get pretty close this year, if not do that whole thing.”

But take away the on-field factors, and her choice was clear. Continue reading

What Vin Scully Taught Me About Michelle Akers

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By Tim Nash

Yesterday was Vin Scully’s last day as the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is 88 years old and has called Dodger games for 67 consecutive seasons. A speech Scully gave 34 years ago, helped me understand the remarkable journey of Michelle Akers, and get a little more insight into what drove her through injuries and controversies.

In 1982, I was working as an intern at the Little Falls (N.Y.) Evening News. Little Falls, a cool little town of roughly 5,000 people on the Mohawk River and Erie Canal, was the home of the Little Falls Mets, the Rookie League affiliate of the Major League Baseball team. When I joined the newspaper, the size of the sports department staff doubled from one to two.

My brother Marty was the general manager of the Little Falls Mets, in his first year working in minor league sports. On opening day of the 1982 season, my brother, having secretly hired a parachutist to drop into the field to deliver the game ball, watched nervously as the small plane flew over the field and kept going. As it became clear the parachutist was not in the air, Marty instructed the umpire to start the game. Shortly after the game began, we discovered that the parachutist had landed nine miles away into a group of bewildered softball players in Doglesville. It was an interesting start to a season where I also got to watch John Elway play center field for the Oneonta Yankees.

That’s all beside the point, though. Little Falls happened to be 30 miles south of Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1982 Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were among the inductees. Scully was given the Ford Fricke Award for journalism that day, and listening to his acceptance speech with my elbows on the stage remains as one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.

Thirty years later, while writing a section of the book “It’s Not the Glory” on Michelle Akers, Scully’s speech helped me understand the fascinating career of the greatest women’s soccer player of all-time.

Here’s the Chapter.

The Warrior and the Sea

The crowd, about 300 folks who came on a Friday night to listen to her speak, is curious. Like everyone she meets, they are taken by her physical presence, the regal stature and the way she carries herself that screams “athlete.” Over the years, she has become a good public speaker, setting aside one-liners and popular themes to just talk. Her story is captivating, and she delivers it from her heart. This time, though, it’s a little different. As she talks about the 1996 Olympics and her teammates, her eyes well up and her voice uncharacteristically cracks. The microphone drops to her side. She bows her head, steps back, and apologizes to the crowd. The crowd, however, erupts into supportive applause.

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