This story originally appeared in the spring issue of ESPNHS Magazine.
Twenty giddy girls sit on the outdoor artificial turf at Diamond Bar (Calif.) High Stadium, huddled in a small circle as they eagerly await the arrival of their school's most popular graduate.
U.S. women's national soccer team standout Alex Morgan enters the venue and strides toward the eager group. For ESPNHS Pro Day, Morgan has returned to the field where her transcendent career began to share training tips and inspirational words with the 2011-12 varsity team. All eyes focus on the 2011 World Cup phenom.
Morgan (Diamond Bar Class of 2007) begins by sharing her high school memories, both good and bad. The forward smiles as she recalls earning a spot on the Under-20 national team at 17, then grimaces when she recalls the anguish that soon followed. During a training session with the men's junior national team, Morgan was clipped from behind and suffered a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee. The setback forced her to miss most of her senior season -- and kept her out of U-20 play until April 2008.
For Morgan -- who would go on to star at UC Berkeley, then become the first overall selection in the 2011 WPS Draft and youngest player on the U.S. women's national team that was the runner-up in last year's World Cup -- the injury and ensuing five-month recovery served as a cautionary tale.
As a result, flexibility is a major focus of the 22-year-old's training now.
She leads the Brahmas in a light jog, moving from sideline to sideline, to warm up their legs. Noncontact running exercises are a key component of the national team's training regimen, says Morgan, who scored a pair of goals in the World Cup last summer and three more during Olympic qualifying in January. Quick and dynamic movements -- isolated shuffles or jumping from foot to foot, for instance -- build that flexibility as well as strength, which help prevent injuries like the one she suffered in 2007.
But before they even touch a soccer ball, Morgan orders the girls to stretch one more time.
A total of six cones and two balls are needed for Morgan's first drill: triangle passing. The team splits into two groups of 10. Each group uses three cones (placed 10 to 15 yards apart in the shape of a triangle), and players pass the ball from one cone to another, then follow it to the next station. The ball moves along a triangular trajectory, and the more accurate the pass, the quicker the pace.
"Challenge yourself by using both feet!" Morgan yells, exhorting right-footed players to switch to their left, and vice versa.
She also encourages the Diamond Bar players to refine their one-touch passing, which -- if executed correctly -- can add speed to an attack and make it difficult for defenders.
"Fast feet, ladies!" Morgan calls out before instructing the team to stretch one more time.
An exhilarating game of chase-and-tag follows. Morgan again splits the team in half and places one group within the boundaries of a grid measuring roughly 15 yards square. One group is labeled as "chasers," whose objective is to tag the group of "runners" (one at a time) until none are left. Morgan urges the girls to complete the entire chase in less than two minutes. One by one, chasers delve into the grid and eliminate runners. They retreat and tag another group mate, who then scurries in and repeats the process.
The activity emphasizes sharp and reflex-driven movements, and is an effective exercise to build soccer-specific stamina (think: pursuing the ball).
Finally, with only one chaser and one runner remaining, Morgan joins the action, creating an unfair two-on-one situation that is amusing to the whole contingent ... except junior Brittany Lorenzana, who has the unenviable task of dodging Morgan's furious charge.
"Change of direction is so important," Morgan says as the others catch their breath. "The change of movement and never standing still; two sprints is better than jogging for 30 minutes. Hopefully you guys had a little fun."
One player, senior midfielder Stevie Thomas, hasn't been cleared to participate in strenuous drills while she recovers from a strained muscle on the outer side of her right knee. She stands on the sideline as the rest of her teammates chase and tag, but Morgan's one-on-one tips on injury prevention are enough to keep her smiling.
"Because Alex went through a similar thing," Thomas says, "I know I'll be able to do it, too."
"This is going to have a tremendous impact on our team," Diamond Bar soccer coach Matt Brummett says. "When you watch players on TV, you get unrealistic expectations of what the game of soccer is like because of the stuff they do. Once you see it happen in front of you, you realize it's a simple game, and Alex is a perfect example of the fact that hard work and determination can take a player from Diamond Bar to the very top."
For the final drill, Morgan explains her approach to shooting penalty kicks.
"I never look at the goalkeeper's eyes," she says. "I always step back three steps and [step] to the left two. It's what I've always
done. I always, always decide where I'm going with the ball before I take a penalty shot, stare at the ball, follow through and never look at the place that I'm going to shoot."
She then blasts a left-footed shot past junior goalkeeper Tyler Hunt.
"I'm freaking out. Alex Morgan took a shot on me," Hunt says, chuckling. "It was a great feeling, it's something that we'll never forget."
The girls take a seat on the turf in front of goal and pepper Morgan, who has set her sights on winning Olympic gold with Team USA in London, with questions on topics ranging from balancing academics and athletics (Morgan earned a degree in political economy from UC Berkeley) to other sports she played in high school (track and volleyball) to her favorite World Cup moment (scoring her first goal against France in the semifinals) to what she eats (fruit and a lot of lean protein).
They cap the afternoon with a loud chant ("Baby, baby Brahmas!") that resonates to the top of the nearby bleachers. The girls huddle together one last time.
Morgan joins the circle, like she never left.