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Friday, September 18, 2009
Burchenal is an all-around star

By Matt Remsberg
ESPN RISE Magazine

There are very few fields in Ohio where St. Ursula (Cincinnati) All-American soccer star Elizabeth Burchenal could be called a secret weapon. A two-time state champion with 65 career goals and a scholarship to North Carolina sewn up, Burchenal is known far and wide as the state's premier player.

Elizabeth Burchenal
Elizabeth Burchenal has 65 career goals.

Luckily for her older brother, Jack, soccer isn't his game. He prefers pick-up football when home from college on break, and he likes to win. So whenever he rallies the troops to get a game together, he makes sure his sister -- his secret weapon -- is able to come along as well.

"Whenever we're picking teams, she's always my first pick," says Jack, a senior at Hampden-Sydney in Virginia and one of Burchenal's three brothers. "Everyone always just assumes it's a sympathy thing, like, 'Oh, he brought his sister along, so he has to pick her.' But then she ends up scoring more touchdowns than anyone else, just going up and making amazing catches against guys who are really good athletes in their own right. It's wild."

Never one to talk trash, Burchenal lets her brother rag on the defenders she burns. And by the end of the game, she usually ends up being treated with reverence, like she was Jerry Rice in his prime.

That's the thing about Burchenal -- she destroys anyone she competes against but somehow manages to leave them wanting to go home, friend her on Facebook and plan a time to hang out again.

It's a personality trait that is especially remarkable when you consider Burchenal should have been making enemies for years. The 5-foot-8 senior forward plays a physical and direct brand of soccer, leading to plenty of dust-ups on the pitch. And she has perfected that style by consistently suiting up alongside older players, which has meant stealing their precious playing time.

"Imagine being in that situation," says her father, James. "You'd expect her to wind up isolated and disliked. But no, it's the total opposite, her teammates love her."

"She has a following. It's like she's a cult leader," adds Jack with a laugh. "I've never seen someone so well-liked by so many people."

What's not to like? Burchenal is a jokester who keeps her teammates loose right up until kickoff but then flips a switch and turns on her Michael Jordan-like competitive streak as soon as the whistle blows. Just like MJ, her favorite athlete, it's inevitable Burchenal will leave her mark on every game. It's not a matter of if, but when.

In last year's Division I state championship match against Strongsville, Burchenal and her teammates were outplayed for most of the first half, but the game remained scoreless into the final minute before halftime. Sensing an opportunity, Burchenal struck quickly. She dribbled past three defenders in one long run that ended with the decisive goal in the Bulldogs' 1-0 triumph, a win that gave them a second consecutive state title and a No. 2 national ranking in the ESPN RISE FAB 50.

"She is as unselfish as can be, but she also knows when to put her head down and go to goal," St. Ursula coach Dave Ruehl says. "When she needs to, she can take it to a level you don't see high school players go."

For that, Burchenal credits the past two years she spent playing up a year on Ohio Elite, one of the nation's premier club teams. She played more than 30 regular season games throughout the Great Lakes region with the team each year and helped the squad reach the U-18 national championship game this summer.

Elizabeth Burchenal
Burchenal will continue her career at North Carolina.

The impressive finish at club nationals capped a whirlwind summer for Burchenal. After high school let out in the spring, Burchenal joined the Boston Renegades of the W-League, a professional league just one step below Women's Professional Soccer. Going up against young pros and elite college players, Burchenal starred for the Renegades even though she still had a year to go before earning her high school diploma.

She joined the squad late and played in just half the games but still finished tied for the team lead in scoring with five goals and two assists. The player she tied with, Brooke Knowlton, is now a junior at Boston College who led the Eagles in scoring last fall.

"The girls were so strong and talented, it was a huge challenge," Burchenal says. "I'm used to being the runt on a team by now, but I was going up against 23- and 24-year-olds so it was unlike anything I'd done before."

So how exactly did Burchenal end up playing pro soccer during her high school vacation? It all goes back to one of the many friendships she's formed on the field.

As a freshman on St. Ursula's varsity, Burchenal became close friends with then-junior Tori Huster. The bond strengthened as the duo led the Bulldogs to the 2007 state crown before Huster headed off to continue her career at Florida State. Huster played in the W-League in 2008 and helped bring Burchenal into the fold this past summer.

Teammates again for a summer, Burchenal and Huster will become ACC rivals next year when Burchenal heads to North Carolina to join the 19-time national champion Tar Heels.

For Burchenal, committing to UNC was a no-brainer considering her goal of playing for the U.S. National Team in the Olympics and World Cup and eventually joining the WPS. After all, the Tar Heels' list of alumnae reads like a who's who of U.S. women's soccer greats, including Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Cindy Parlow and April Heinrichs.

Though Burchenal hasn't been heavily involved in the U.S. Youth National Team program, she knows starring at UNC is the ticket to fulfilling her ultimate dreams.

"I know I have to take it one step at a time, so my focus is just on winning championships wherever I'm playing," she says. "Whether it's high school, club, college -- winning championships is my goal."

Matt Remsberg covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.