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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
North Carolina's non-leaders lead

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- For North Carolina seniors Casey Nogueira and Tobin Heath, greatness comes from their ability to do things on a soccer field that only the smallest handful of players in the sport's history could contemplate. For the Tar Heels, greatness during Nogueira's and Heath's tenures in Chapel Hill has come from not needing either of them to do more than that.

Casey Nogueira & Tobin Heath
Casey Nogueira (right) and Tobin Heath (left) aren't vocal leaders; they lead by example.

They are the odd couple of North Carolina soccer, a program famed for its relentless pressure during games and the manic intensity of its practices, where every drill is charted and every player's performance scored. It's the program of Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm and Heather O'Reilly, stars for whom intensity was as much a trademark as their ample artistry.

By contrast, the two most recognizable faces of the franchise at the moment put their emotions on display for public consumption with as much regularity as the Tar Heels lose games. They amble onto the field and shuffle off it. One moment they glide effortlessly past straining opponents, the ball seemingly attached to their feet with string, The next moment they look like climbers on the final ascent of Everest as they slowly jog far from the play.

They shrug politely at the impossibility of explaining the hows and whys of what they can do. They are in many ways alike, and in almost every way different from all of those around them.

"We have this thing we stole from Urban Meyer, the Florida football coach, called a leadership council," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said. "We put all of our seniors on it and then we have a class representative -- a junior, a sophomore, a freshman. And so in their careers here, Tobin and Casey consider themselves the non-leadership council. And so we have our meetings and decide on policies, and they would have their meetings and decide on nothing."

It was, as Dorrance quickly pointed out, all done in humor.

But there are times in watching Nogueira and Heath when it feels like they're playing because the game is access to the sport as a pure challenge. As North Carolina defender Whitney Engen put it last year in talking about her teammate's propensity for starting impromptu pickup games hours after tough organized games, Nogueira's basic needs in life -- besides food, water and shelter -- are little more than a soccer ball and a boom box. Heath is little different.

"Tobin and Casey's strengths until [last season] was the individual duel," Dorrance said on the eve of the College Cup last December. "But you don't win and lose the game based on how many of your players win the individual duel; you win the game based on whether or not you outscore your opponent. So the huge challenge any coach has with an incredibly talented pair like Nogueira and Tobin is to convince them of what makes the difference. What makes the difference is the balls in the back of the net."

As freshmen, everything came quickly for them. On a team led by O'Reilly, who could at times make Margaret Thatcher look indecisive, Nogueira and Heath were free to let their talent take them along for the ride en route to a national championship. But with O'Reilly gone the following year, the Tar Heels skidded to a 19-4-1 finish, which by the program's admittedly lofty standards was a veritable disaster.

Nogueira led that 2007 team with 13 goals, while Heath added two goals and five assists, but it was a group that often appeared offensively rudderless. Dorrance said at the time that an upset loss early that season against William and Mary was a turning point for Heath, who responded to the coaching staff's instruction and subsequently earned a place on the 2008 United States Olympic team. Focusing Nogueira's array of skills took a little longer, but after that rocky sophomore season, she emerged last season to score 25 goals, including both of her team's goals in the championship game. She also anchored a young frontline that relied heavily on then-freshmen Courtney Jones and Brittani Bartok and then-junior transfer Jessica McDonald.

"I think Anson has been extremely patient with a lot of us, especially me," Nogueira said. "My freshman year, I came in, I didn't really know what it meant to play defense. So he's just kind of been really supportive and believed in me the whole time. It's been an amazing experience because just having a coach who completely believes in you and forgives you after you mess up really bad and just is always there to help you. That's why I've gotten better over the years."

In talent, Nogueira and Heath are the logical extension of those who came before them in Chapel Hill. They are at the forefront of a new generation of players with increasingly sophisticated ball skills and soccer instincts. It's what you see watching Nogueira settle a ball in the box and strike it with just enough compromise between power and touch to kick in off the inside of the far post in the season opener against UCLA. And it's watching Heath make up at least 10 yards of ground in a matter of strides and deftly tackle the ball away to cover for a teammate's slip and prevent UCLA's Zakiya Bywaters from getting in alone on goal.

But in temperament, what once appeared as much revolution as evolution has followed an unfamiliar route to a very familiar conclusion.

"They pretend like they're not leaders, but they are leaders," Dorrance said. "They embrace the culture and values of the program; they embrace their teammates. They're very humble about their abilities -- you'll never get either one of them the least bit arrogant about their level of the game. And they're just incredible kids."

And in that respect, they fit right in with the best the Tar Heels have ever had.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.