THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
From Warrior to Tar Heel
By Charles Swenson
Taylor Player had six shots on goal and won an MVP award in the North-South Soccer Classic. That was in June. And it looked like that was the end of her soccer career, one that saw her set a scoring record at Waccamaw High and lead the Warriors to their first state championship.
The state Class A-AA player of the year graduated with no college prospects. She had considered an offer from the College of Charleston in the fall of 2009, but decided against it.
Two of her teammates got soccer scholarships to private colleges in North Carolina, but Player said she worried that college-level soccer was "too serious," that it would take the fun out of the game.
"I changed my mind after the North-South game," Player said.
She talked with Curtis Freeman, her club coach for two years at what is now SAA Elite. "There were probably 10 places she could go in South Carolina," he said. "They were all begging for her."
But he called coach Anson Dorrance, who has won 21 national championships in women's soccer at the University of North Carolina. The season was over, so Dorrance had no chance to see Player in action.
Freeman took her to the summer camp the Tar Heels run for junior players.
"I couldn't believe how athletic she was," Dorrance said. He couldn't believe she wasn't signed by a college.
He wasn't able to enroll Player for the fall season, but she will now head to Chapel Hill in January, leaving Newberry College where she started classes this year.
"We're excited about her," Dorrance said. "We think she is a diamond in the rough."
As for Player, "It was a shock," she said. "I wasn't really thinking it could happen.”
Her previous exposure to North Carolina soccer was at a camp Freeman set up at Pawleys Island in the summer of 2009. Two players from the UNC national championship team came. One was Casey Nogueira.
"Nobody believes me that Casey Nogueira slept on my couch," Player said.
It's like a football player trying to convince someone Cam Newton spent the night.
Nogueira, then a junior, scored both goals in the 2-1 championship win over Notre Dame. She was the NCAA women's soccer player of the year. (She played professionally for the Chicago Red Stars, which folded this week.)
Nogueira and Player were on the same team for a scrimmage. "It was so easy playing with her," Player said.
And Freeman recalls Nogueria saying she would have liked to have Player on her team.
"I never thought it was possible," Player said.
One reason for that, Freeman said, was visibility. "She had none."
"She managed to hide herself from everyone out there," Dorrance said.
Player was part of a group that started playing on the Orange Crush, a recreation league team that grew into a championship club team.
She was one of a dozen seniors on the Waccamaw team that compiled a 71-8 record over four years. They outscored their opponents 445-35, and Player accounted for just over a quarter of those goals playing at forward and midfielder.
She reached 100 midway through her final season, a school record, and finished with 119.
For good measure, she ran track for the first time as a senior, finishing fourth in the state in the long jump and sixth in the 200-meters.
"Her speed, agility and vertical jump are Division I caliber," Dorrance said.
Along with 32 years coaching at North Carolina, he also coached the U.S. national team to its first Women's World Cup win in 1991. That team included Mia Hamm, who played for the Tar Heels and retired in 2004 as soccer's top international goal scorer – male or female.
Player will start training early in the semester. She has already been keeping to a schedule of drills and workouts Dorrance gave her.
At 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds, she is getting stronger. She recalled that a Clemson coach once told her she was too small for the ACC.
Dorrance said Player is about average.
"Most soccer players are the greyhounds, not the rhinos," he said.
As for college-level soccer being too serious to be fun, Dorrance paused.
"Maybe it will take the fun out of the game," he said. "It's not for the faint-hearted."
But he said Player, who turns 19 on Sunday, will get a head start on other freshman players, who won't start until after graduation. "It allows her to gain some comfort ahead of time," Dorrance said. "Hopefully, she'll gain a lot of confidence."
And he added, "spring for us is just a blast."
Player said she's moved beyond the idea that the college game won't be fun. "I'm not a serious person," she said. But she is serious about soccer.
The North-South game was one of the few times she had to play with a new roster of teammates. "They were all really good," Player said.
But mixing on the field was easy. "It's harder off the field when you don't know anybody," she said.
Being around so many good players will be intimidating. Building confidence is one of her goals, along with improving her ball handling.
Dorrance thinks Player could start next year. With her skills, "she won't be restricted to a certain part of the field," he said. "I basically see her playing at any flank position."
The transition of college soccer is as much mental as physical.
"We're curious to see how hard she wants to work to become a great player," Dorrance said.
Player said she's ready. "I've never wanted to play soccer so bad in my life."