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Tuesday, September 6, 2011
From Alaska, with love

By Graham Hays
DURHAM, N.C. -- To get from Chugiak, Alaska, to Duke University, you have to spend nine hours on a plane. How long does it take to get from Alaska to the United States women's national soccer team? Blue Devils freshman forward Kelly Cobb is hoping to find out, with Duke as her first stop.

But first, Cobb would like to clear up a few misconceptions about her home state. For one thing, there are centers of urban life in a state that has roughly one-fifth the population density of Wyoming. Her hometown is about 20 miles from Anchorage.

"It's a small city, but it's nothing like people imagine -- like an isolated, nowhere little village," Cobb explained with a mixture of defensiveness, pride and humor. "It's, you know, civilized."

It's not Paris or New York, but it's not a place where moose have the run of the streets. All right, as a U.S. Soccer profile of Cobb noted several years ago, there was that one moose that wandered onto the soccer field during a game.

But the main thing Cobb would like to make clear is that Alaska need not be a soccer wilderness. You just need a little ingenuity and a dad raised on Woody Hayes who now channels Pep Guardiola.

Kelly's dad, Gardner Cobb, is a big man, over 6 feet tall and with the broad shoulders of a former University of Cincinnati football player. He and his wife moved to Alaska in search of the great outdoors about 25 years ago.

"It's a beautiful place; everyone should go once in a lifetime," Gardner said of his adopted state. "I would recommend from the end of May through the middle of September. Don't bother coming up after the middle of September, unless you like cold and snow."

There's plenty to do outside in Alaska when summer disappears, but little of it involves soccer fields. That became an issue when the family's younger daughter showed a propensity and passion for the game that went beyond local youth leagues. To get something close to a real soccer experience most of the year, she had to rent time at the Anchorage Dome, cajoling friends to come with her and train on the artificial turf. As for instruction, well, you work with what you have.

"We've got several good coaches up there, but it's mostly dads and mothers coaching,'' Gardner said. "So I knew if she was going to compete down here in the big leagues, she would need a lot of extra help. So I just went to clinics, camps, the Internet.''

Kelly chose Duke over North Carolina and Notre Dame, and she has the game to merit all the fuss. She's tall like her dad, listed at 5-foot-9 and drawing understandable comparisons to American star Abby Wambach.

Hours spent in small indoor gyms, where even five-a-side soccer was a luxury, helped her hone her technical skills. Watch her for a few minutes and you might see her, back to her target, play into a teammate with a pinpoint pass from midfield, or softly settle a ball at the top of the 18-yard box before unleashing a powerful shot.

"She can shoot really well with both feet," Duke teammate Laura Weinberg said. "She's strong. She can hold people off. ... I think she'll add a lot to our team. I think she's going to score a lot of goals."

Cobb wasted all of eight minutes before scoring in her first college start against Houston. Later the same weekend, she scored the decisive goal in a victory against defending national champion Notre Dame.

Some players just know how to make themselves at home on a soccer field.

"I think it takes a lot of courage and a lot of trust in the program and trust in [coach Robbie Church] to fly completely across the country in a completely new environment for her," teammate Mollie Pathman said. "She hasn't been homesick yet, so that's good.

"But she's excited for winter, she tells me."

That's a North Carolina winter, of course.

"You know what, I think I won't miss it so much," Cobb said of winter in Alaska. "I had 18 years of it. And I'll be back at Christmas to get in the fun -- snowboarding and skiing, that stuff's fun. I want to get back for that.

"But I won't miss not being able to walk outside without my hair freezing, stuff like that. It's a great place to grow up. I'd love to someday go on the national team and have them say that's where I'm from -- and I made it."