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Sunday, December 7, 2008
Updated: December 8, 5:59 PM ET
Nogueira comes into her own, leads UNC in title game

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

CARY, N.C. -- The wind that whipped through WakeMed Soccer Park during Sunday afternoon's national championship match brought a chill worthy of December and sent even well-struck balls fluttering off course like wayward knuckleballs.

But with a pair of memorable second-half goals into the teeth of the gale, Casey Nogueira provided North Carolina cover from the winds of change for at least another season.
Casey Nogueria
Casey Nogueira has now scored national title game winners for UNC twice -- in 2006 and 2008.
"The two goals she struck today were world-class finishes," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said. "If both of those goals were scored in the Premiership, you would be seeing both of those goals on a highlight reel at the end of the week. On the greatest platform we have, which is the national championship final, she scored two of the most phenomenal goals I've ever seen."

With its 2-1 win against Notre Dame, North Carolina claimed its second national championship in the past three seasons and its record-extending 19th NCAA title in women's soccer. And for the second time in the past three seasons, the championship win came at the expense of perfection for the program that has emerged as the Tar Heels' main rival.

Notre Dame wasted little time staking its claim to the moment, scoring a goal just 16 seconds into Sunday's match. A rare giveaway from North Carolina's back line off the opening kick allowed Courtney Rosen to feed the ball through to Kerri Hanks, who held off two Tar Heels and slipped the ball past Ashlyn Harris to the far post.

Having lost to Notre Dame in Chapel Hill twice in essentially the past 12 months, during the third round of last season's NCAA tournament and in September this season, the quick strike could have been a punch that left the Tar Heels out for the count.

"I mean, it was extremely disappointing to give up a goal," North Carolina junior defender Whitney Engen conceded. "But I think that in a weird way, it was almost a good thing that they scored. I think it really woke us up. I think that a problem we have had since Nikki Washington and Meghan Klingenberg have left [before the NCAA tournament for the Under-20 World Cup] is that we have just had this inability to really take over games."

North Carolina fell behind Texas A&M with less than 10 minutes to play in last week's quarterfinal before rallying to win in overtime. It survived a fierce second-half rally from previously unbeaten UCLA in a 1-0 semifinal win. So in its own way, falling behind the Fighting Irish so quickly freed the Tar Heels to forget those near misses and reclaim their lost identity. When your worst fears have been realized, there's nothing left to fear.

"I think that deep down, as much as nobody wanted to say it, we were a little scared," Engen said of the mindset entering Sunday's game. "And that's not the Tar Heel mentality. We want people to fear us; we don't want to be scared."

Playing its high-risk defense to perfection after the early miscue, North Carolina stymied Notre Dame's dangerous forwards. Time after time, the Fighting Irish tried to play long through balls to break Hanks, Melissa Henderson, Brittany Bock or Michele Weissenhofer in on goal, and time after time, the flag went up on the sideline for offside.

I truly believe she plays this game because she loves it. She doesn't do it for accolades; she doesn't do it for the awards that she gets. She plays this game because she loves it. And her love for the game is so contagious; it's spread through the rest of the team.

--Whitney Engen on Casey Nogueira

And with Notre Dame unable to expand its lead, Nogueira had her opening after halftime.

Nogueira is no stranger to the spotlight at the College Cup. As a freshman in 2006, she scored the championship game winner against the Fighting Irish in Cary. But that team belonged to Heather O'Reilly, its senior All-American who left Chapel Hill as one of the program's top 10 all-time leading goal scorers. With a lineup that regularly included seven freshman starters, including Nogueira, O'Reilly was the unquestioned hub.

"I think you sleep a lot deeper at night as a coach when you have that kind of player," Dorrance said earlier this week of O'Reilly. "But I think you can win by committee, even at this level. But still, there's going to be a moment in the game when one or two players have to kind of take over and be difference-makers."

Few have ever questioned whether or not Nogueira, the daughter of legendary indoor soccer goalkeeper Victor Nogueira, had the physical skills to be a difference-maker on any soccer field in the world. But after her outstanding performance as a freshman in the NCAA tournament, her second season could easily have found its way onto the Wikipedia definition of a sophomore slump. That's saying something for a player who still scored 13 goals last season, but she was perpetually the subject of scrutiny for what became Dorrance's oft-repeated mantra of "playing" rather than "competing."

A Raleigh prep product who played in the shadow of the North Carolina program, Nogueira is nevertheless cut from a different personality mold than ultra-intense Tar Heels of years past such as O'Reilly, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly or April Heinrichs.

"She shies away from the spotlight," Engen said. "She's one of the most humble people you'll ever meet. Give her a boom box and she's happy -- a boom box and a soccer ball and she is happy. I truly believe she plays this game because she loves it. She doesn't do it for accolades; she doesn't do it for the awards that she gets. She plays this game because she loves it. And her love for the game is so contagious; it's spread through the rest of the team."

In contrast to her endless array of moves on the field, Nogueira seems to retreat into her own world in other public settings, staring off into the distance and speaking without inflection. But whether it's serving as the team's DJ in the locker room -- to the point that Dorrance joked that he worried he wouldn't get the team to stop dancing in time to warm up for Sunday's final -- or finding space to drop a ball and start playing, she is her own person.

As Engen continued, "We'll have a game, a really hard game -- this happened several times throughout the season -- and she'll call us all up and say, 'Let's play pickup tonight.' … I would go out there, and I wouldn't necessarily play all the time, but I'd just sit there and watch her. And the way she moves with the ball and just the smile on her face -- after we've played a terrible game -- it's just so infectious. It makes you really appreciate that this is a game."

Nogueira said after the game she would love an opportunity to one day play with Brazilian star Marta, someone she also credited as an example of a player who both plays and competes. And in the model provided by the Brazilians such as Marta and Cristiane, Dorrance found a way to reach Nogueira this season to turn all that skill into 25 goals and front-runner status in the Hermann Trophy race among the nation's best college players.

"The Brazilians are her role models," Dorrance said. "She loves the way the Brazilians play, and you can see in her game that she's got that kind of skill. But what we were trying to convince Casey of is that before the strike, the Brazilian is using all of these creative ideas, but when they're actually striking it, it's the simplest of finishing ideas. Even in the last Olympics, you would watch Cristiane or Marta play, and they would carve someone up with something really clever and sophisticated and slick. But then the finish was low, across the frame, side panel. … It was the simplest of finishing ideas."

Just as simple as the perfectly placed free kick from outside the 18-yard box that tied Sunday's final in the 52nd minute and the left-footed winner in the 88th minute. On the second goal, Nogueira found herself even with the top corner of the 18-yard box on the left side of the field. The space to her right blocked off by three Notre Dame defenders, she dribbled toward the end line to create a narrow window of separation and fired with her left foot, the ball taking the slightest of deflections off a Notre Dame player and slipping under the cross bar on its way to the right-side panel.

Nogueira stepped up and made two plays that only she could have made. And a team Dorrance said was as much fun to be around as any in his career proved that even against a landscape of increasing parity, North Carolina is still the game's true superpower.

"This team has a wonderful sort of joyous anarchy," Dorrance said. "I'm certainly not in control of it, but it was one of the most joyful seasons ever."

So maybe in her own way -- the only way she knows how to do anything -- this was Nogueira's team all along.

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