NCAAs prep tomorrow's soccer stars

For those who play in the NCAA soccer tournament, which culminates with this weekend's College Cup, it's as much a crucible as a competition.

For some, the event is a stepping-stone to World Cup and Olympic stardom. Others find it's the pinnacle of their soccer careers.

Those who go on to play national team-level soccer say lessons learned during the pressure cooker of the NCAA tournament helped when the opponent became Sweden rather than Stanford.

Or, say, China.

Brandi Chastain's World Cup-winning shootout goal in 1999 was a classic example of poise under fire. U.S. versus China. A coveted World Cup title on the line at home. A defender trying to score before a sold-out Rose Bowl crowd. Millions watching on TV.

Hey, no pressure.

But before she famously whipped off her shirt to expose washboard abs (and a black sports bra) in an iconic victory celebration, Chastain was a two-time All-American forward who helped Santa Clara reach the national semifinals in the 1989 and 1990 NCAA tournaments.

She's now a TV commentator and a volunteer assistant coach at Santa Clara, where her husband, Jerry Smith, is the longtime coach. She remembers the NCAA tournament helped forge a cool competitor.

"You win and you go on, or you don't win and you go home," Chastain said of the NCAAs. "It's just impossible to mimic. The tournament elevates and weeds out the players who rise to the top and [those] who can't handle the pressure. It's pretty simple."

North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, whose teams have won a staggering 21 national titles, was in the catbird seat at tournaments watching Mia Hamm, Heather O'Reilly, Cat Reddick, Carla Overbeck, Kristine Lilly, Tisha Venturini and many other stars playing for his Tar Heels. Overbeck, now an assistant coach with Final Four team Duke, won four titles at UNC.

This year, UNC lost to Central Florida in a shootout in the tournament's third round.

"It's always a shock being knocked out, especially if you're a senior," Dorrance said. "The element that prepares these kids for the next level is the one-and-you're-done aspect.

"It's not like the NBA or major league baseball, where you get a seven-game series."

Icon SMI

Stars such as Wake Forest's Bianca D'Agostino will learn about pressure in this weekend's College Cup.

The tournament taught O'Reilly, the U.S. national team veteran midfielder, many things, including how to cope with being the favorite.

As a North Carolina forward, she won the NCAA tournament's most outstanding player award twice, in 2003 and 2006.

"Especially at North Carolina, everyone wants to be the team to knock you off," O'Reilly said. "It's similar to playing on the USA team. There are so many parallels to playing at UNC and playing at the World Cup level. It taught me not to take any opponent for granted, any team for granted, to keep those good habits all through the season."

With top players having established their reputations during their collegiate seasons or on junior national teams, only in rare cases has the NCAA tournament provided a springboard to international fame.

The tournament has been more a showcase than a launching pad, a place for people such as Chastain, O'Reilly, Julie Foudy, Hamm, Lilly, Abby Wambach, Overbeck and Canada's Christine Sinclair to add to growing reputations.

One exception was star U.S. team keeper Briana Scurry, whose diving save set the stage for Chastain's winner in 1999. Scurry's national-team career was launched during the NCAAs, while she was playing for unheralded Massachusetts.

This year, all four No. 1 seeds -- Stanford, Wake Forest, Duke and Florida State -- survived a demolition derby of a tournament to reach the Final Four.

In Hamm's time, national team players would be plucked from this elite group of four. Now, it's rare to find national-team players exclusively on College Cup teams because top players are "more spread out than they used to be," said April Heinrichs, technical director for the U.S. women's national team and a two-time NCAA tournament most outstanding player for UNC, in 1984 and 1986. "It's much more difficult to go to the Final Four and pick your roster for the national team."

That fact underscores a deepening of talent and teams in women's college soccer, which only recently expanded its tournament to 64 teams and experiences few blowouts, not even in the early rounds this season.

These days, U.S. Soccer has a number of youth national squads, and is able to identify top players earlier and get them international experience. Gone are the days when Hamm and Lilly made the lone national team at ages 16 and 17, respectively. For example, Tobin Heath, a midfielder on the national team, was tabbed as a future star at 14.

In the past decade, U.S. Soccer had added Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 women's junior national teams. Players on those teams who will be playing for an NCAA title this weekend include Duke's Kelly Cobb and Mollie Pathman, FSU's Ella Stephan, Stanford's Lindsay Taylor and Wake Forest's Bianca D'Agostino.

They're already on the fast track. But this week's College Cup and its sudden-death atmosphere might identify them in another way.

"Playing with that kind of pressure is positive pressure," Dorrance said. "The truly great ones figure out a way to rise to the occasion."

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