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Monday, July 31, 2006
O'Reilly provides experience, youth on national team

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

CARY, N.C. -- The typical college senior worries about finding an apartment that won't scare mom too much when she comes to visit, tracking down the reading list for that senior seminar and catching up with friends. Restoring North Carolina to its accustomed place atop the college soccer hierarchy, and, if time allows, taking passes from Aly Wagner and Kristine Lilly while helping the United States qualify for next year's World Cup in China don't usually make the list.

Heather O'Reilly
Heather O'Reilly is using last year's dissapointing finish in the NCAA Tournament as motivation for her final season.
One of the busiest students in North Carolina's famed "Triangle," Heather O'Reilly isn't a typical college senior.

Last year's ACC Player of the Year and a first-team all-conference player in each of her first three seasons in Chapel Hill has been moving forward for so long, whether on the field or off, that she might not even remember how to slow down anymore.

Even in an interview at her hotel in Cary, N.C., while practicing with the U.S. national team, O'Reilly can't help but keep one wary eye on the clock, afraid she'll be late for a team meeting. Unfailingly polite and apologetic when time runs out on the conversation, O'Reilly gives you the feeling the 90 minutes she spends on a soccer field might be the only chance she has these days for uninterrupted solace.

Not that leading a frenetic double life is anything new for O'Reilly. At 21, she's young to be a member of the senior national team, but not startlingly young. Teammate Megan Rapinoe, the only other player with college eligibility remaining (Rapinoe plays for defending NCAA champ Portland), beat her out for the title of the team's youngest player by mere months. But it's in caps (appearances for the national team) where O'Reilly's numbers cause a double take.

Although she couldn't legally enter any of Chapel Hill's famous bars until Jan. 2 of this year (not that she has time for such typical college diversions anyway), O'Reilly has already has accumulated 49 caps, more than all but seven players on the roster for Sunday's international friendly against Canada, which the U.S. won 2-0. Whether her next appearance comes against China on Aug. 27 or later, she'll be among the youngest Americans to reach 50 caps.

All in all, it makes for an odd existence for the team's second-youngest player.

"It's interesting that for such a long time I was the young kid, the young buck, and it's kind of cool now that I'm given some responsibility, in terms of I do have more caps and more time with this team than most," O'Reilly said. "I kind of have to tweak my attitude that I'm not going to be that little kid that always needs to be under someone else's wing. Now I have to step up and do the same for others."

Not that there was anything wrong with the wings she was under.

For most college players, Mia Hamm remains an inspiration in the form of a poster on the wall. But for O'Reilly, she's a former teammate who fed her the ball when O'Reilly scored one of the more famous goals in U.S. soccer history to beat Germany in extra time in the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics. Thus it's with concrete evidence, instead of hyperbole, that United States coach Greg Ryan connects the two.

"In terms of learning, Mia Hamm was a much smarter player in her last year than in her first year," Ryan said. "And these players are going to take the same amount of time to learn what Mia learned over time. So Heather O'Reilly, she's learning. You cannot replace experience. Give them their years and they will be ready."

O'Reilly agrees, putting a positive spin on the pressures of playing for two high-profile programs as she said, "It's interesting to bounce back and forth. I actually think it's a great thing for me, because I get a great training environment while these other players are home maybe and don't have as many spots to train."

All of which ought to make it that much scarier for NCAA opponents that O'Reilly remains very focused on her final season at North Carolina.

Heather O'Reilly
Heather O'Reilly attributes her year-round training on both the national team and at North Carolina for her success on the field.
"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 side note, but I was totally focused on the U.S. team," O'Reilly said. "But more recently, I've just been getting so exciting 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."

A few years ago, that crowning achievement would have been a given. No disrespect to the Chicago Bulls or New England Patriots, but until recently, North Carolina women's soccer was the contemporary equivalent of the dynasties put together by the Boston Celtics and UCLA men's basketball. Beginning with the first NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels and coach Anson Dorrance won the 13 of the first 15 titles, including eight in a row between 1986 and 1994. And until Notre Dame and Portland joined the club the last two seasons, North Carolina was the only school with multiple titles.

But like just about every college sport, the impact of Title IX is only just now producing the depth of talent and diversity of resources to produce greater and greater parity among women's programs. Though last year's North Carolina team lost only one game in the regular season and featured three players who were on the field for the national team against Canada, they couldn't overcome an off night against a young and talented Florida State team in the quarterfinals. And so for the fourth time in five years, the Tar Heels did not win the title.

Of course, O'Reilly's time with the national team has prepared her to deal with out-of-date expectations for regular glory just as much as it has prepared her to deal with defenders. Despite overall improvement throughout the world, many casual fans still expect the United States to win every game, and certainly ever major tournament, in decisive fashion.

"It is funny that both teams, they have those pressures," O'Reilly said. "I kind of think on both teams, some might say, 'Oh, that's a lot of stress for you guys.' But really I think it's a compliment. Every college team that sees they're playing UNC circles that game, highlights that game and focuses on us. And the same thing on the world stage for the U.S.

"It just forces us to have a high standard for ourselves. I wouldn't say that we get stressed out or put under too much pressure, but I just think it forces us to play at a higher level every day, day in and day out. And we can't take a day off, because we know everybody is at our heels."

It's not beyond imagination to think the quick-witted O'Reilly, who somehow manages to maintain a stellar academic record despite the time and travel requirements of playing for both teams, intentionally, or at least subconsciously, crafted the pun at the end of her sentence. Either way, it's fitting given the challenges the Heels face in fending off opponents while reloading around their senior star.

Whenever O'Reilly leaves the national team to return to North Carolina, she'll have to adjust to playing without Lindsay Tarpley and Lori Chalupny, the two highest-profile losses for a Tar Heels team that will have to replace a number of key players.

"It's going to be tough," O'Reilly said with a shake of her head. "I think Lori has been the workhorse for UNC her entire career, and Lindsey was obviously a finishing star who was able to score goals for UNC. I think that they're both going to be tough hits and we're going to miss them a lot. But hopefully we'll have some younger kids step up and try and fill those roles, although I don't think anyone can ever be in their shoes because they were just tremendous players for the program."

It also will be tough, bordering on impossible, if the Tar Heels are forced to confront at least a part of postseason play without O'Reilly. With CONCACAF qualifying set for November -- at the same time as the NCAA Tournament -- nobody seems able to say exactly where O'Reilly will be during the month.

For her part, O'Reilly is moving ahead, as always, with trying to enjoy her final months as a college student.

"That's something that I definitely focus on, almost force myself to do, because otherwise you can get wrapped in it all and forget the important things, which are my education at UNC and the experiences I'm going to take from college," O'Reilly said. "I think I really find a way to get a good balance, and a big part of that is finding friends who support me and support my decisions and what I want to do. Surrounding yourself with good people helps you get there."

And besides, if anyone can be two places at once, it's probably O'Reilly.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.