Paige Nielsen follows passion to UNC

Graham Hays/espnW

Paige Nielsen stepped into a starting role for North Carolina because of an injury to Alexa Newfield and has scored three goals, including the only one in a 1-0 win at Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH -- Six days a week, Paige Nielsen goes about proving there is no one in the long history of North Carolina's successful women's soccer program who wanted to be a Tar Heel with any more passion than her.

On the seventh day, she still wears red.

And woe unto anyone who tries to come between the sophomore from Lincoln, Neb., and an opportunity to watch her hometown Cornhuskers on Saturday. She doesn't have anything against what they offer as football in Chapel Hill. It just isn't the same thing she grew up with in a place where, as the old line goes, the University of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium becomes the state's third-largest city on Saturdays.

"It's way different," Nielsen said. "We don't have anything to do in Nebraska, so the whole town in Nebraska is there supporting the Huskers. It's a lot of fun. But obviously, the soccer culture [at North Carolina] is awesome."

Graham Hays/espnW

Paige Nielsen grew up in Lincoln, Neb., watching Cornhuskers football, but also had another love: She began attending North Carolina soccer camps in eighth grade.

Like with Nebraska and other traditional football powers, that soccer culture goes with the Tar Heels when they travel. Last week's trip to Pittsburgh brought out the largest crowd in that school's history on a Thursday night, as the 1,419 in the stands and lining the walkways more than doubled the regular-season average for one of the ACC's newest schools. Some came to see the home team. Some came perhaps for the dollar hot dogs. Judging by the volume of the cheers and the abundance of a particular light blue in the clothing, most came because North Carolina was in town for the first time ever.

Nielsen sent the crowd home happy, presumably, when she scored the lone goal in North Carolina's 1-0 win. It was a frustrating night at the end of what amounted to an extended road trip for the Tar Heels, coming shortly after games at Florida State and Miami, but Nielsen's well-timed run to redirect a Katie Bowen cross early in the first half meant the Tar Heels' inefficiency and wasted shots cost them nothing in the standings.

No longer ranked No. 1 after recent back-to-back shutout losses against Notre Dame and Florida State, North Carolina has been searching in recent days for offensive consistency without injured starters Alexa Newfield and Amber Munerlyn. The situation would be more dire beyond All-Americans Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai if not for Nielsen, who stepped into a starting role in Newfield's absence and ranks third on the team with four goals.

"She and Alexa, tactically, might be our most sophisticated players," coach Anson Dorrance said. "Paige reads the game really well. Whenever a ball is about to be served in to her, she's already checking early. Alexa, same thing, she sees the game real well. So I think Paige has really contributed. ... I think Paige has won the right to start, and I think it's going to be tough when Alexa comes back as to who I put on my bench between Paige and Summer Green."

I would see Mia Hamm play, I would see Carla Overbeck play, I would see amazing players play on the national team who played at North Carolina. And their work ethic that I watched was insane. It made me excited and want to know where they went to college and what this place was that made them work so hard and built their play and their character.
Paige Nielsen

That Nielsen might displace a key figure on last year's Under-17 national team and now the Under-20 national team, if even temporarily, marks a notable ascent for a player who fell in love with North Carolina before the program returned the feelings.

"I would see Mia Hamm play, I would see Carla Overbeck play, I would see amazing players play on the national team who played at North Carolina," Nielsen said of her youth. "And their work ethic that I watched was insane. It made me excited and want to know where they went to college and what this place was that made them work so hard and built their play and their character."

Nielsen is not "Rudy," to borrow another football figure. She twice led Nebraska's largest high school classification in scoring. She twice led her team to the state championship game. Nebraska offered her a scholarship before she was even in high school. Other programs, like Northwestern and Kansas, showed interest. There were plenty of places that would have given her close to a full scholarship and called her the cornerstone of their recruiting class. But when Dorrance told her he wanted her to play for the Tar Heels, but there wasn't much scholarship money available for her class, she verbally committed almost on the spot. It was why she went to North Carolina's summer camps every year from eighth grade on.

"There were two factors in us recruiting Paige," Dorrance said. "Not only did she play well in our camp, but we just really liked her. If you got to know her, you'd feel the same way all of us do. She's just a really, really nice person. She's fun to be around."

Academic scholarships made up some of the financial difference, but she gave up guaranteed playing time along with the scholarship money when she chose North Carolina. She averaged a little more than 20 minutes per game last season, not bad for a freshman on a team that eventually won the national championship, but a far cry from any previous soccer experience.

"Your club team, you're used to being one of the top players on it, playing all 90 minutes and having all your players look to you when you're struggling," Nielsen said. "You take on this role to lift your team. And then you come in as a freshman in college and you don't have that role anymore. Everyone is as good as you. It's just a matter of who puts in that work. It's definitely a transition, but it's a good transition because it makes everything that much more competitive."

It requires a certain measure of passion to put aside pride, to want to be a part of something even at the risk of personal reward.

When asked about the first Nebraska football game she ever attended, without knowing the question was coming, she recalled without hesitation the game between Nebraska and Texas Tech on Oct. 8, 2005. She remembered Huskers defensive lineman Le Kevin Smith making a late interception and then lumbering down the field instead of going down and giving his team a chance to run out the clock. She remembered him fumbling instead, leaving the visitors just enough time to score a touchdown and escape with a 34-31 win.

"The guy was trying to be a hero and run it all the way back for a touchdown," Nielsen lamented. "I remember it perfectly."

Football is a passion in Nebraska, one she brought with her in more than a drawer full of red shirts. There aren't many places where college soccer matters that much, even to a smaller subset of fans. As the crowd in Pittsburgh showed, one of those places is wherever the most famous brand name in the sport goes.

As long as there are girls like Nielsen in the stands who want more than anything to grow up to become women like her on the field, that won't change.

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