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When Carla Overbeck captained the United States to a win over China in the final of the 1999 World Cup in front of a packed house at the Rose Bowl, she helped inspire an entire generation of girls to follow their soccer dreams. Now seven years later, she's finishing what she helped start for a group of girls who followed those dreams all the way to one of the nation's elite college programs.
|Sara Murphy was one of the top recruits in the nation.|
"I went to watch the '99 World Cup that was here, and I wasn't even playing defense then but I have always looked at her as a role model," Murphy said. "I thought she was the coolest player, and she was the captain obviously. But yeah, I really liked her from the beginning, before I even knew I'd be playing the same position as her."
A midfielder through youth soccer and most of high school, Murphy found herself playing the same position as Overbeck after coaches with the Olympic Development Program decided it was a better fit for her skills.
"And I guess it worked out there," Murphy said. "Because I would not have been able to play at the level I am right now if I was still playing outside mid."
Coming from Murphy, that's both a fairly strong statement and a relatively lengthy one. With a smile that splits the difference between friendly and embarrassed, she is unfailingly polite and quiet. Sentences frequently trail off unfinished, a shrug and a smile suggesting she doesn't think anyone could really be interested enough in what she has to say to justify more than two clauses.
It's an unusual trait in a center back, a position usually charged with a leadership role on the field. And it's something Murphy is very aware of.
"My communication is probably a weak point, because I'm more of a quiet person," Murphy said, the final words perhaps subconsciously fading into almost a whisper. "But hopefully I'll be able to -- everyone says once you step across the line, you can just be a totally different person. So I'm working on it, being more vocal on the field."
Aside from that issue, Murphy is rather fond of her new position.
"Right away I knew I liked it better than anywhere else, because from the back you can see the whole field and what's going on," Murphy said. "I just like playing with everything in front of me."
Ranked as one of the top 25 recruits in the nation last year by Soccer Buzz, Murphy is anything but a wallflower on defense. And besides, listening is often an underrated skill in freshmen. Just ask Murphy's hero and now assistant coach.
"I just think she reads the game really well," Overbeck said. "Physically she's tough, she's great in the air and she's extremely coachable. I mean, anything you tell her, she's like a sponge, she just soaks it in and tries to make her game better."
Clearly, letting her play speak for itself is something Murphy does rather well.
"I think Sara's going to be a four-year starter for us," added Duke head coach Robbie Church. "She's a very intelligent young lady herself -- plays a lot like Carla. I mean, she's athletic, but I wouldn't label her as overly athletic. But she's just very cerebral, very smart, reads the game, good positioning of the game, really good in the air when she has to.
"As quiet as she is, she really is a competitor. She competes very hard."
Murphy's arrival couldn't have come at a better time for the Blue Devils. Church, who said he typically prefers to enter the season with four defenders in place and tweak as the need arises, admitted this season will probably feature a regular rotation of as many of seven or eight players in the back.
Along with Murphy, fellow freshman Jane Alukonis has stepped up early on in the middle, although Church said Alukonis may eventually return to midfield. But judging from the early action, one constant in the back four from now until 2009 will be Murphy. Awarded defensive MVP honors for the weekend tournament in New Haven that included games against Yale and Connecticut, Murphy has overcome preseason injuries to play more minutes in Duke's first four games than anyone except goalkeeper Allison Lipsher.
All of which gives her that much more time to soak up the knowledge Overbeck can impart.
"If I'm sitting there and talking to you defenders about something, I understand they listen to that," Church said. "But if Carla Overbeck -- who has been through it, was captain of the national team and one of the greatest center backs ever -- is talking, you know, that brings a lot more clarity. She can talk from a technical standpoint and from a mental standpoint and from a leadership -- she's done a great job with our captains."
Four years with Overbeck may transform the soft-spoken Murphy into a prototypical captain -- although Overbeck isn't trying to change her and was quick to point out, "I think that's sort of her personality a little bit."
For now, Murphy is more of a prototypical freshman, at least off the field. Sitting at the hotel computer on Saturday, she attempted to juggle homework, e-mail correspondence and cell phone conversations before pausing for an interview.
|Duke assistant Carla Overbeck has become a mentor to the players she inspired.|
The opportunity to work with world-class professors was part of what lured Murphy to Duke, but few are more distinguished in their fields than Overbeck. Now retired from international soccer, although she still looks entirely capable of playing 90 minutes, she relishes the opportunity to be a part of the process from start to finish, as dazzling prospects like Murphy evolve into polished gems like Ford.
"I really enjoy it, I feel like I have something to offer the kids," Overbeck said. "I want to stay in the game somehow. Obviously, I love the game of soccer. And any way I can sort of help them develop as players and people, I want to be a part of that development."
Watching Overbeck in that hotel room in 1999, Murphy knew she too wanted to do whatever it took to pursue soccer as far as the game would take her. Little did she know that the person who would guide her on this leg of the journey would be the same person who helped inspire the trek in the first place.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.