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Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Courtney Jones finds dad knows best

By Graham Hays

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Courtney Jones wasn't sure she was good enough to make the cut at the University of North Carolina, the one and only dynasty in women's college soccer.

Fortunately for Jones, she had the counsel of a father who knew his way around a dynasty. She was sure she'd stay close to home in California; he kept urging her to at least visit Chapel Hill.

"I knew North Carolina was the best program in the country," Jones said. "I don't think I had that much confidence in myself that I could go there and play. … The fact that I had an opportunity to play here, it was one of those things where you can't pass that up."

Score one for Brent Jones, Courtney's father and a four-time All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champion as a tight end for the San Francisco 49ers. After 30 goals, 73 starts and two national championships in her first three seasons with the Tar Heels, it's safe to say his daughter was up to the challenge. And she may just be getting started.

"He wanted me to go where I wanted to go, but I think he kept it on the list because I think he kind of saw a fight in me that maybe I didn't see yet," Jones said. "I think he had researched the school, he had done most of the work for me and was just like, 'You know, let's just take a visit.'"

It was not the first time he pointed her in the right direction.

Just 7 years old when her dad played his last game, Jones has a child's hazy recollection of those days. She remembers sitting in the stands with her grandparents and hanging out at the team facility, but little of the actual football. She wears No. 84 for the Tar Heels, just like her dad did for the 49ers, but much of her version of him begins about the time the rest of us stopped remembering him.

Dad was always the goofy guy joking around with her at home, but he also was the guy telling her that "Jones' never quit" when she, in fact, felt quite sure she could live with doing just that during a grueling workout. He didn't push her to play soccer, but he pushed her to get the most out of it when she did. It didn't hurt that she knew the advice was coming from his own experience. As it turns out, the pigskin background also proved useful in other ways. Football or futbol, some things are universal.

"I do think it's a connection," Jones said. "That's how I grew up. That's what he knew, so when I played soccer when I was little, he'd be yelling on the sidelines, 'Go,' and I'd turn and just keep on running. I mean, the speed, of course, comes from him. … Just the mentality in general of just getting the ball and [going] toward what you want, I think he definitely taught me that."

One of the things that most surprised her about the North Carolina program when she visited was learning the players weren't soccer-obsessed robots. In turn, one of the things that might most surprise people who know Jones only from watching her play is you aren't likely to find a friendlier soul -- outside the lines. On the field, she plays like her number. She plays like an All-Pro tight end's daughter.

"Speed and strength; she's just a strong, athletic player," Duke coach Robbie Church said. "She gets to that top-end speed so quickly. Some people, you've got to cover some distance to get there. … The other thing is she is direct. A lot of forwards kind of go back and forth and then take it back -- she's going to goal. She wants to score goals."

That's what Jones brought with her when she came to North Carolina, why she was able to score 13 goals as a freshman on a team with the likes of Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira. As coach Anson Dorrance said, "When we recruited her, she was a fast player who liked to take on -- she's still that player for us."

What she leaves with may depend in part on the other aspect of a dynasty's DNA. You need talent, to be sure. You also need leadership. Jones is one of only four players in their final season of eligibility on the North Carolina roster this season and the only one likely to start on a regular basis. For a young team eager to put a rare postseason disappointment behind it after last season's 4-1 loss against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16, the program's first loss by more than one goal in more than 25 years, that puts an onus on leadership. That can't just happen on the field.

The night before the home opener against those same Fighting Irish, Jones and her boyfriend cooked for almost 30 teammates and friends, a full spread of pasta, meatballs, breaded chicken and more.

"I feel like a mother," Jones joked of taking in her teammates. "But I love all of them."

The Tar Heels won in overtime the next night on a winner from Jones. It was a hard, low shot to the corner of the net, the kind of shot Dorrance said may be the only thing standing between the senior and even greater accolades. For someone who had big questions about being cut out for a program like this, only the small things remain unmastered.

It will all make for quite a moment when she walks onto the field with her mom and dad for senior day later this season.

"The fact that I'm almost about to cry now, I think, says most of it," Jones said. "I think it's going to be an incredible feeling because it will sort of sum up my whole career here. I have loved every single second of it."

Being part of a dynasty will do that.