UNC still the team to beat in 2009

Parents haven't finished the ceremonial unpacking on many college campuses, but the NCAA women's soccer season is here. If not quite a full syllabus, it's worth starting with 5 Burning Questions that need to be answered between now and the first week of December, when the sport's final exam takes place at the College Cup.

1. How good can North Carolina be?

Winning a title requires talent; it also requires timing. From George Mason in 1986 to USC last season, a history of disappointment suggests that stretching both over two seasons is easier dreamed than done.

And then there's North Carolina.

For the better part of the sport's first two decades under the NCAA umbrella, from winning the first NCAA-sanctioned national championship in 1982 to No. 16 in 2000, the question for the Tar Heels each fall had less to do with matching the previous season's success and more to do with exceeding it. And even as this year's Tar Heels look to break a string of eight consecutive seasons without a repeat champion in women's college soccer, it feels a little like old times again.

The Tar Heels return 24 players from last season's title-winning team, including nine who started in the championship game. Yael Averbuch and Allie Long, two valuable midfielders, are gone, but the team also reclaims Nikki Washington and Meghan Klingenberg, each of whom played starter's minutes for much of the regular season before missing the postseason while competing in the Under-20 World Cup. Defenders Whitney Engen, Kristi Eveland and Rachel Givan each played at least 2,300 minutes last season and give the back line continuity in front of goalie Ashlyn Harris. Olympian Tobin Heath and veteran Ali Hawkins anchor the midfield, while Casey Nogueira returns following a 25-goal junior campaign to lead a front line crowded with options.

It's a team that, by almost any measure, should be better than 2008's champions. That's the Carolina way.

2. How many teams can stop the Tar Heels?

Unlike seasons of old, North Carolina may need to be better to defend its title. Last year's College Cup was as balanced as a final quartet could be. All three games were decided by a single goal and all three really were that close. And all four teams have ample reason to believe they can get to College Station this December.

Stanford has to replace the middle of its back line, UCLA has big names to replace from goal to midfield, and Notre Dame must move on without Kerri Hanks and Brittany Bock. But all are still loaded and capable of beating North Carolina (UCLA and Notre Dame get shots before Labor Day). Throw in Texas A&M, Florida State, Virginia and a handful of others, and you could easily fill out at least an NCAA quarterfinal bracket's worth of legitimate championship contenders.

But if you're looking for a team that could beat UNC on the Tar Heels' best day, look to Portland, which has patiently waited out three seasons of bad luck, bad timing and successive quarterfinal disappointments since winning its second championship. Megan Rapinoe is gone, but the Pilots' large contingent of U-20 World Cup players is back and gives coach Garrett Smith breathtaking offensive depth in front of potential All-American keeper Kelsey Davis.

3. Is the Pac-10 the league with the most to prove?

Granted, it's all but blasphemy to suggest the ACC isn't the best league in women's college soccer, but the case to be made for the Pac-10 as a challenger on the rise is strong enough to keep away the lightning strikes.

The strength of the ACC comes not just from the top of the league, where North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia regularly hold down positions in the top 10, but from the depth that's a product of programs like Boston College. Duke and Wake Forest (which are routinely capable of winning multiple NCAA tournament games). The Pac-10's top-end power is unmistakable -- look at USC's 2007 national championship, UCLA's long run of College Cup appearances and Stanford's re-emergence in recent seasons. But in the likes of Cal, Washington State and now Washington, which appears back from the abyss of a winless 2005 season that followed it's quarterfinal run a year earlier, the conference's middle class is pushing it to the forefront.

How those latter teams fare this season, in addition to the fate of the higher-profile teams, will shed light on whether the Pac-10 is not only the second-best conference but also poised for a run at No. 1.

4. Who are the Hermann Trophy favorites?



Lauren Cheney, UCLA
She has grown into a complete forward, no doubt in part because she's been training with the national team for about as long as she's been taking college classes. Free to focus on her final college season, the results should be prolific.



Michelle Enyeart, Portland
Enyeart played fewer than 800 minutes last season, largely because of Under-20 World Cup obligations, and still totaled seven goals and seven assists. She's a pure finisher with 20-goal potential.



Melissa Henderson, Notre Dame
There aren't many players who have the instincts to feel a play, or the skills to follow through, the way Henderson did in setting up Notre Dame's opening goal in last year's College Cup. With a year of experience, she should be ready to trust that feel for the game for a full season.



Casey Nogueira, North Carolina
She's the most gifted player out there. How often she goes all-out, and how often she's asked to given the talent around her, could determine her ultimate place in the Hermann race.



Kelley O'Hara, Stanford
Talent is a must, but it never hurts to have personality in a race loaded with gifted players. The feisty, intense motor for a deep Cardinal attack, O'Hara is impossible to miss on the field.

5. Who is the Hermann sleeper?

Erin Guthrie, Rutgers
The Hermann is a de facto offensive player's award. And as good as coach Glenn Crooks' program is, it's not operating in the same spotlight as those in Chapel Hill, Portland or South Bend. That extended caveat aside, Guthrie is so good -- and could make enough of a difference for a team that also has sleeper potential -- that she at least merits a place in the discussion.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.