Allllllrightthen, here we go. I’ll tell you, I loved last year’s Final Four because of the position we were in. I loved coming in as an underdog. Guess what? I think the same thing is happening again at this Final Four. In the press conference yesterday all the questions I got this year were about how well Portland is playing and about how we’re struggling. Well, I can play that tune. I went right along with them. But I was thinking that if you people had seen the second half of our quarterfinal game against Penn State, you pinheads!, you’d have known that we outshot them 9–1. Where the hell have you been? I didn’t deliver any of that to the media because I know what we can do, and if right now they have written us off, then I want us to show everyone what this team can do out there on the field tonight because I tell you, when you guys play your best you are devastating. You are frigging inspirational. You play through your hearts with extraordinary passion, and our opponents know that if they don’t bring it, you guys are going to humiliate them.
In the press conference I thought one of Portland’s players talked about their confidence with a little too much confidence. You know what I mean? They think they’re on a roll and they think that we’re collapsing. They think we’re toast. They think they can grind it out. Let them try to grind it out with us for ninety minutes. We are professional grinders. Everybody’s talking about all of their great players, but do they have our personalities all over the field? I don’t think so. I think we have great weapons and we need to bring them to bear. We have something to prove. The media doesn’t think we’re going to play. Portland doesn’t think we’re going to play. I think we’re going to play. Are you with me?
The man delivers this speech before an audience of women. Coach Anson Dorrance conveys this message to a specific team inside a specific locker room during a specific season, but these are words he could have said at any Final Four in any season in the history of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer program, because, like so many of Dorrance’s speeches, this one is timeless.
On this day Dorrance will not talk about the past. He will not talk about the ludicrous number of national titles won by women wearing the same distinctive blue uniforms as the women gathered around him. He will not talk about all of those championship trophies back in Chapel Hill that are stuffed into the display case like a set of encyclopedias, or about the fact that runner-up trophies are traditionally utilized as doorstops because anything less than a national title is considered a failure. He will certainly not remind these players that they are the caretakers of the greatest dynasty in the history of collegiate sports. Because, this being college athletics, every season, every team, is totally different, and the women in this room are not even the same women they were at the Final Four last year or the year before that. Far from it. So Dorrance will not mention anything won in the past. Or anything not won. In fact, he will not mention winning or losing at all. Everybody present already understands the one quest that binds them all. Shared expectations. Shared destinies. The roses.
As Dorrance concludes a brief synopsis of the game plan, the team’s manager, Tom Sander, carefully removes the roses from a duffel bag in the corner of the room. And thus begins a ceremony that ushers the Tar Heel senior class out of the locker room. Each of the seniors is handed a bouquet of roses. Most of them wipe tears from their eyes. The underclassmen, many also crying, applaud and cheer each senior as she walks a receiving line, stopping for a hug and a few encouraging words from Dorrance and then from assistant coach Bill Palladino, goalkeeper coach Chris Ducar, and finally the team’s trainer, Bill Prentice. During these moments, there is a collective flashback to three weeks earlier, when Dorrance walked into the team meeting room back in Chapel Hill before the opening game of the NCAA Tournament carrying a vase of flowers, and told them all about the roses. He had explained then that each red rose in the vase represented a national championship won by the current senior class, and he had read them a passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince about caring for a rose. Then he had summed up what it all meant to him. “The rose is symbolic of wherever each of you are athletically, and it’s symbolic of championships because you’re all responsible for them,” Dorrance had said. “What I like about the symbolic use of flowers is that we’re celebrating our past, but after a while, the flower shrivels and dies. That glory is dead. Athletics is about renewal, and you guys are sitting in the places of all the previous classes who have tried to send their seniors out as champions. If we lose a game in this tournament, there’s no tomorrow for them. Their careers have died. So we play for them.”
As the locker room door closes behind the final exiting senior, Dorrance pulls several photocopied sheets of paper out of the breast pocket of his jacket. As is his custom, he has worked through much of the previous night in his hotel room, writing and rewriting a personal letter to each of his seniors in his barely legible longhand. Then he has awakened early this morning to polish his words, editing until the last possible moment, because that is the only way the letters can be genuine, the only way they can express what he sincerely feels at that instant. Then he has delivered the original letters to each of the seniors a few hours before the pregame talk.
He knows that he’s only got a moment with these letters, and that this could be his last chance to make sure each senior knows how much he cares about them. He wants each young woman to know that even though he has spent four years telling her this isn’t good enough, that isn’t good enough, she isn’t good enough, that what he’s been secretly searching for all along is what really is good enough in her. When he recounts a personal story or two about her that she’d never expect him to remember, he wants her to know what he thinks is her finest quality—and this is never a soccer quality, but a human quality—because he believes that’s what his women appreciate most. When he reads the copies of the senior letters to the underclassmen left behind in the locker room, he wants his admiration to resonate. As he shares the words he has written to each senior, no matter how large or small her role on the team, Dorrance wants everyone inside that room to be in awe of her.
We’re all familiar with our tradition here, and part of it is that I get to share my memories of the kids we’re going to lose. These are the letters I wrote to our senior reserves. It’s always hard. Obviously you guys think you’ve got all the time in the world. You think you’re going to be in college forever. At least that’s what I thought when I was there. Then all of a sudden it’s gone and we’ll never play with these kids again . . .
There are many great memories that I will treasure from this year, and one that will stand out was after the conference championship game when you were jogging off the field smiling from one ear to the other after playing in just the second game of your career. I heard someone’s voice calling my name, and I turned to see your father. Reaching down to extend his hand from above the rail at the Wake Forest soccer stadium, a tear was rolling down his cheek. He was so proud of you. I told him that you were going to take a piece of history with you. Until the end of recorded time in the pantheon of great goalkeepers that this program has had who have won world championships, Olympic medals, national championships, no one will beat the goals against average of his sweet and humble daughter, Katie. Please take that history with you, Katie, and one day brag to your grandchildren that, yeah, Tracy Noonan, Siri Mullinix, Jenni Branam were all pretty good goalkeepers at UNC, but how about 0.00 goals against? . . . How about that? . . .
So we play for Katie.
You are a triumph of the human spirit. Every image I have of you is a catalog of your guts and your indefatigable will. My first image of you was seeing you sprint and dive across the finish line your freshman year to pass your first fitness test. My second image is when we were desperate that first week of games your freshman year, and we asked if anyone wanted to play up front to make up for the lackluster effort of our starters, and you volunteered and with sheer effort turned the game for us. The next image was you as a sophomore on a stretcher after they put those rods in to repair your broken back. And where are you? You’re not in the hospital. You’re on the sidelines with us. Part of our team. The most recent image brings it all back together. It was this year, and like your freshman year, we were wondering out loud if any of our starting forwards would take any kind of risk to help us win. We asked you if you would take a risk. You survived Lyme disease as a child, a broken back on the soccer field as a young college kid, and a medical dismissal as an old college kid when doctors told you you could never play again. So if you did not want to take the risk anymore, it was OK. You earned the right to quietly decline, but you said yes, you’d take a risk to help the team win. To this day, that goalkeeper does not know what hit her. When she discovered you lying next to her and the ball in the back of her net behind her, she learned how hard and courageous someone’s heart could be. You are my inspiration.
So we play for Whit.
I want you to know I think you are an example of everything that is good in athletics. Athletics does not necessarily build character, but it definitely exposes it, and what it exposed in you is uniquely powerful and positive. We won’t find your name on any collegiate All-American list or your face on a highlight reel, but your moral fabric and work ethic is pervasive here. Your concerns were for an environment that transcended self-interest, and you supported your teammates and coaches in our mission to be the best we could be even when the playing time and glory went to the goalkeepers you played behind. For four years in a row I have brought you into my office to tell you that someone else is going to play in your place in the NCAA Tournament. And in this, your final year, it is most painful. Your nobility in the face of this disappointment will always set you apart. Please know this. You are finishing at your best, following your greatest performances in a development that’s ascending still. We will all miss you on the field, but we will also know that your mark was always made on a higher plane.
So we play for Kristin.
There’s a part of me that will forever burn with the idealism that I envy in you. There’s another part that wanted you to serve yourself and let West Africa be, but I admire that you had to go there last summer to help any way you could. In the swirl of glitz and glory in the numbers of our tradition, and in the interviews of our stars and goal scorers and media darlings, the stories miss their mark because the values of everything we really treasure are preserved in you. You kept alive the tradition of running fitness with the ones who can’t. You gave back to your local community to fight for the construction of fields that you will never play on as an example to the ones who won’t. You passed the most excruciating fitness test in the game with only the rarest possibility of ever playing as a standard for those who have none, baffling the ones that try to cut every corner. You leave no margin for the ones who whine about the conspiracy of their human condition. When you go, some of the things I like best will go with you. You’ll be missed, more than you’ll ever know.
So we play for Johanna.
Dorrance’s voice cracks with emotion several times throughout the reading of the letters. Twice he stops to compose himself. There is much sniffling among the players, a few are openly sobbing, dabbing at their faces with their uniform sleeves. When Dorrance finishes reading the final letter, everyone in the room, including the coach and all of his staff, have their heads bowed, fighting back tears.
Let me tell you this. I’m watching practice yesterday and we’re wrapping it up, doing our set pieces at the end, and I’m watching Catherine Reddick practice free kicks. All season she’s so afraid to hit anyone in the wall that most of her shots are skying over the crossbar or going wide. Well, Catherine knows now that it’s time to go after it. All of a sudden she smacks one, and it almost tore a couple of ribs off Johanna. I wanted to set Johanna free so I said, “All right Johanna, that’s it. You’re outta the wall.” And she didn’t move. She didn’t move. It looked like a tear started to well up in Jo’s eye, and I know she was in pain. But I was wondering, what was she in pain from? That the ball hit her? Or that this was all she could do to help us win, and she did not feel complete or satisfied, and would anyone even notice or care? So remember this. When you’re out there tonight, playing out the last minutes of someone else’s career, don’t waste a second. Don’t avoid a physical risk. Don’t not make a run. Don’t dishonor the wonderful nobility of the reserves you are playing before. You will never eliminate the quiet pain they are all suffering, but you will make it a bit more bearable, and if you are truly valiant it might even feel inside that all of their sacrifice is worthwhile.
All right. Here we go.