Irish sophomore brings home Hermann trophy

CARY, N.C. -- When you're raised in Texas, but Tottenham Hotspur is your favorite football team, is there really any doubt what the future holds?

Arguably the biggest soccer junkie in the college game, Notre Dame's Kerri Hanks is now inarguably the best player in Division I women's soccer this year after winning the Hermann Trophy presented by the Missouri Athletic Club on Saturday night. Just a sophomore, Hanks beat out fellow award finalists Heather O'Reilly and Yael Averbuch from North Carolina.

Heading into Sunday's championship game against those same Tar Heels (ESPN2, 12:30 p.m. ET), Kerri leads the nation in assists (21) and is tied with Middle Tennessee State's Kala Morgan for the lead in goals (22). With one game remaining this season, she has 50 goals and 36 assists in her first two seasons with the Fighting Irish, and her 136 total points rank as the third-best mark during any player's first two seasons (more than 15 years after UC Santa Barbara's Carin Jennings and SMU's Lisa Cole claimed the top two spots in a very different soccer landscape).

"It's an amazing honor," Kerri said. "Actually, I didn't think I was going to win it; I thought Heather O'Reilly was going to win it. But I mean, it's just such an accomplishment to be named one of the three finalists. Now I'm up there with the best players in the country, and it's an honor. And I can't explain how thankful I am to my teammates. Without them, I would not even be close to even getting an award."

Although Kerri was born in Plano, Texas, in 1986, her soccer roots run across the Atlantic to England, where her dad grew up playing the national game before moving to the United States as an adult. While other girls in Plano might have spent hours at their father's feet watching Troy Aikman and the Cowboys, Kerri was watching whatever soccer games her dad could pull in at the time.

"I think what helped her tremendously was I still watched the soccer, still liked to follow it and the teams," Gary Hanks said. "And even at the age -- I think she was 4 or 5 -- we were sitting there watching soccer and I thought she's not really interested, she's just drawing pictures. And then I said, 'Well, what are you doing?' And I looked, and she's got these little things, these arrows, and she says, 'I'm looking to see where they started the runs.' "

Incredulous, and despite never wanting to push his daughter toward any sport, let alone soccer, Gary knew he had a budding forward, the same position he played, and a budding competitor.

"I guess some of it started even when she was like 3," Gary said. "She's got a bigger brother, four years older, and they were out playing soccer and she'd come back in and say, 'Dad, he won't let me have the ball.' And I said, 'No, he's not allowed to let you have the ball. If you want it, you've got to go get it.'

"She slammed the door, and off she went to go get the ball back."

To this day, she remains, in the words of Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum, a soccer junkie. Waldrum claims Kerri would rather watch a soccer game than go to a movie, and Kerri, dismayed that she can't get Fox Soccer Channel on campus cable, admitted sneaking into the soccer offices recently to watch a big clash between Chelsea and Manchester United in the English Premier League.

For Kerri, soccer is as much a part of her genetics as the wiry build she shares with her dad. But in addition to providing the nature, her dad has been an invaluable resource in providing the nurture for her passion.

"We've been watching ever since we were little," Kerri said. "He's like my hero when it comes to soccer. He's taught me everything I pretty much know. Just growing up with him, I had such a huge advantage over so many other girls in the country. It's just great that I have someone that can actually help me out."

More than just a heartwarming anecdote of the bond between father and daughter, the soccer experience Gary was able to share with Kerri helped instill the mix of instinctive touch and cerebral acumen that separates her from the rest of the nation.

"A lot of kids won't take the time to go watch other leagues and other teams, they only are involved in what they're doing," Waldrum said. "I think that's what separates Kerri, because she comes from a soccer family. She's understood the game. She knows how to run and where to run and when. It's just one of those things you pick up from seeing it all the time. It's a hard thing to coach players to be able to have those kind of movements when they don't watch enough games at a higher level."

Although he appeared a little ill at ease with all the attention coming his way because of his daughter's exploits on the field, Gary relaxed and grew animated in talking about the far more familiar topic of soccer. To him, the vast organizational infrastructure of youth soccer in this country is both a blessing and a curse.

"You go out there, you get your group of friends together, your mates, and you go out and you play," Gary said about the game he grew up playing in England. "There's no rules, you call your own fouls. And I believe this is why basketball is tremendous in America, because most of the people, you go out and you see people playing basketball. But you don't see people playing soccer as much by their self. It's organized, and that's great, but sometimes it's just too organized. And a player can't do what they want to do, because if they're with a coach, it's like, 'Why did you do that? You can't do that, you messed up.'

"Whereas if they're by their self, go try a bicycle kick, if you make yourself look an idiot, who cares? There's nobody there to say you done it wrong. You try again. Your mates may laugh at you and say that was horrible, but that's definitely the thing with America. And I think we're getting better, but that's what we need."

On the field, Kerri plays like someone who enjoyed the best of both worlds during her development, playing on club teams against boys until she was 11, but also spending plenty of hours playing street ball. Fundamentally skilled, she is also distinctive in her sense of when and where to make runs and her willingness to take chances in pursuit of a goal.

For better or worse, she also plays with the fire and intensity of someone who has never relied on a coach's good words for confidence. As a result, her award-winning season began with a little bit of frustration as Notre Dame adjusted to life without Katie Thorlakson, who posted 18 goals and 35 assists as a senior last season.

"I think Kerri has taken on a lot more responsibility than she had to last year," Waldrum said. "I think Katie was everybody's focal point last year, because of the year she'd had in 2004. And I think Kerri was able to come in as a freshman last year and just play, and not have to feel the burden of carrying the team."

But without sophomore Brittany Bock, who was playing with the under-20 national team, at the start of the season, Hanks had to fill not only the leadership void left by Thorlakson, but also her playmaking role with her back to the goal.

"I think Kerri really felt the burden of having to be the one to carry us up front," Waldrum continued. "She did a good job with it, early on, but she also had some times that I think she was frustrated and struggled a little bit, because she's the kind of player that really needs to have some space and some time and some freedom to run without the ball, and she was having to play a little more of a target player role for us. And that's just not her forte."

That changed when Bock returned and assumed that role up front, with Cinalli shifting from forward to midfield. Of Kerri's 22 goals, 15 came in the team's 16 games after Oct. 1, compared to seven goals in 10 games in August and September.

"We did that because we thought Brit would give us more of a player that was similar to Katie that could hold the ball and find other players," Waldrum said. "And as soon as we made that change, and Kerri could get back more into her familiar role of making those runs without the ball and using her abilities and the strengths she has, it just seemed to really click and take off."

Just a sophomore, the future is a vast open canvas for Kerri after winning the Hermann. And while the murmurs haven't reached a full buzz just yet, she will inevitably become the next player to draw comparisons to Mia Hamm, as fans search for the next great American star.

In truth, the United States already has that player in Abby Wambach, who is in the prime of her career and whose goal-scoring prowess is at least as impressive as Hamm's, if not more so because of the increasing level of parity in the international game. But despite being outgoing, intelligent and socially aware, Wambach has oddly failed to enjoy the same public acclaim as Hamm.

So does Kerri represent the future for a national team with many options, but little proven goal-scoring prowess at the international level after Wambach and veteran Kristine Lilly? It's tough to say at this point, because despite a prolific career with national junior teams, Kerri has yet to make her first appearance for the full national team.

"I wish that the coach would come out and see us play a little more," Kerri said of Greg Ryan. "I don't think he's ever seen Notre Dame play [Ryan did say at last week's Gold Cup that assistant Bret Hall would make a scouting trip to the College Cup]. But I'm still in college, so I have two more years, and if it's not my time yet, hopefully it will come later."

Her college coach has little doubt that she could make an immediate impact.

"I think, personally, she's ready and should get a look with the full team," Waldrum said. "I think that she's proven at the international stage and she's proven at the collegiate stage that she can score goals. I think the sky is the limit. … I think she's on the brink of being a special player for us. Will she be a Mia Hamm? I don't know if it's fair to compare anybody to a star, just like comparing a basketball player to Jordan, you know?"

For now, she can celebrate joining a list of Hermann winners that includes Hamm, and think about joining Hamm and Cindy Parlow as the award's only American two-time winners.

After all, with the swagger of a Texan and the soccer schooling of a Brit, Kerri is doing just fine making her own name in the game.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.