Former East Chapel Hill High teammates anchor UNC defense
Sophomore Caitlin Ball wasn’t planning on playing soccer when she enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Freshman Hanna Gardner was recruited to UNC, but the coaching staff thought she was still a year or two away from playing.
Now, as the most successful program in women’s soccer history attempts to win its 21st NCAA championship at this weekend’s College Cup, the former East Chapel Hill High teammates will comprise two-thirds of the Tar Heels’ defense.
UNC (13-5-3) faces Stanford (21-1-1) in tonight’s semifinals in San Diego, Calif. (11 p.m., ESPN3.com), and the winner advances to Sunday’s championship game.
Ball is a two-year starter who anchors the center of UNC’s three-player backline, while Gardner is second on the team in minutes played. Assistant coach Bill Palladino said that it was extremely rare for a top program like UNC to have two starters from the same high school.
“We recruit nationally in order to be competitive, and you’re picking kids from each community, and rarely do they have two kids,” Palladino said.
Ball watched UNC play growing up and occasionally acted as a ballgirl, but she never imagined that she would someday play at Fetzer Field. When she finally came to campus as a student last year, she expected to study journalism and perhaps play club soccer and club frisbee.
Two days before preseason camp started, a player left the team for personal reasons, and Ball, an exceptionally fit player with a tremendous understanding of the game, earned a place on the roster. Still, head coach Anson Dorrance was straightforward with her.
“He basically said as long as you keep up your grades and you work your hardest, you’ll have a spot on the team,” Ball said. “But you may never play a quality second on the field.”
But Ball worked her way into the rotation and wound up starting the final 12 games of last season. She missed most of this year with a severely sprained ankle, but has been back for UNC’s NCAA Tournament run.
Palladino said “it’s almost unheard of” for a walk-on to contribute so early in her career.
“We have a lot of walk-ons — we encourage walk-ons, as a matter of fact,” Palladino said. “If a kid can get into Carolina on her own and doesn’t need money, that’s a no-brainer. But none of them usually wind up like Caitlin did. Later in their career they may become significant contributors, but generally not as a freshman.”
Gardner also far exceeded expectations in place when she arrived at UNC. After senior Megan Brigman fractured her right leg in the first game, Gardner was inserted into the lineup and has started every game since.
“We thought that Hanna would develop and be one of those players in a year or maybe two years would be a significant contributor,” Palladino said. “But it took us two weeks to realize that she was legit, too, and she had the tools to contribute right away as a freshman for us.”
The East Chapel Hill graduates have their lockers next to each other, which came in handy when Gardner became an unexpected starter in her first year, just like Ball was the year before.
“If I’m really nervous or something I’ll tell her to give me a pep talk,” Gardner said.
No. 13 UNC is actually the underdog tonight — No. 1 Stanford has won 19 straight games. Still, the Tar Heels have won 20 out of 30 NCAA tournaments and are 23-2 all-time in national semifinal games. They’ll be counting on two local products to help keep that record going.
“We’ve got an excellent team,” Palladino said. “And it speaks well of (Chapel Hill) to see two different starters be so successful.”
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