Total Access: UNC's winning culture

August is when the North Carolina women's soccer team's pursuit of a championship begins, knowing that the work put in during late summer will help translate into a title in December. Graham Hays/espnW

On the same December evening last year when the University of North Carolina women's soccer team won a national championship, undergraduate assistant coach Brittani Bartok posted a picture on the somewhat unofficial and entirely entertaining team Twitter feed for which she is maestro. The top panel of what were two photographs stacked together showed a scene of Tar Heels strewn around a practice field in various stages of exhaustion. The bottom panel showed players sprawled amidst celebratory confetti at the conclusion of the championship game against Penn State.

There for all to see, and retweeted more than a thousand times, was cause and effect. Separating beginning and end is trickier.

There is a theory in cosmology, conveniently advanced in recent years by a research team from the University of North Carolina, that suggests there is no beginning and end to the chronology of the universe. The universe expands, then contracts and expands again in an unending cycle.

It might be easier to envision in terms of the school's juggernaut soccer team. One championship pursuit ends, another begins. And where one begins, another ends. On and on forever it seems.

So here we are.

"Is this going to be painful?" Tar Heels women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance asked the players assembled in front of him. It was a rhetorical question, but he supplied an answer anyway. "Absolutely."

The sun had been up for only a couple of hours on a recent Sunday morning in Chapel Hill, N.C., and already the humidity dared steam rooms to keep pace. Cicadas, too, were noisily abundant despite the early hour. Their distinctive song was a reminder that summer is never silent, even here on an athletic field adjacent to the university golf course and about as far removed from the hustle and bustle as it's possible to get in the college town.

From a vantage point along one of the white lines that marked the edge of the practice field, even the cicadas were at intervals drowned out by a wave of labored breathing that approached and receded as more than 30 bodies sprinted from one end to the other and jogged back again. There were no soccer balls in sight. The only opponent was the clock, 18 seconds to cover 120 yards. Another 30 seconds to complete the jog back to the starting point. Rest for 30 seconds and then do it again. And again. And a few more times after that.

Kealia Ohai, the All-American forward who not only scored the goal that put North Carolina in the championship game a season ago but came up with the strike that propelled the United States to gold in the Under-20 World Cup earlier the same year, finished the final sprint at the front of the pack. Once across the line, she squatted on the balls of her feet, sank to all fours and then lay on the ground while a trainer elevated her legs. All around her players crouched, sat or stood doubled over in various stages of misery.

Play the game at a sprint. It's one of the coach's favorite adages. It doesn't happen easily.

"From the beginning, what I've always tried to do is think about the kind of team that I would hate to play against if I were a player," Dorrance said. "I would hate to play against my team. I would hate it. I would love to play against some of these other teams that give you pockets of areas to play-make and stage and slow the game down. ...

"But who would I hate to play against? Someone coming at me for 90 minutes."

It is as good an explanation as any as to why North Carolina so often celebrates amidst confetti in December. As for how it works, that is what August is about. This is where the team prepares for those 90 minutes. For part of preseason, first in Chapel Hill and then at the team's training retreat in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C, the Tar Heels opened the doors to espnW to see it take shape.

The reign of Anson Dorrance

August is Dorrance's favorite time of year. Just ask him.

"I get so excited, I can't sleep," Dorrance said. It was a Saturday and a day off for the players, but he was in his office all the same.

Or ask the person who has to put up with him.

"He gets so excited, he can't sleep," said M'Liss Dorrance a day later as she and her husband ate hamburgers amidst tables full of his players, a not-so-quiet, not-so-intimate meal before coach and team departed Chapel Hill for a week of training on the North Carolina coast. As he responded at length to a question about the relative merits of the 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 formations, she wandered off to chat with players.

Asked if he'll know it's time to do something else when the preseason insomnia ceases, the 62-year-old coach looked quizzical, as if someone had asked him what he would do when he grows tired of oxygen.

At least opposing coaches can take solace in knowing they aren't the only ones who lose sleep over the Tar Heels.

North Carolina has won 21 of the 31 NCAA championships awarded in women's soccer, in addition to an AIAW title before that, all under Dorrance. The NCAA titles are more than the combined totals of Connecticut and Tennessee in women's basketball, more than the combined totals of Arizona and UCLA in softball. Excluding intrinsically individual sports that award team titles like wrestling and track and field, no men's or women's Division I program is in possession of more national titles.

North Carolina has more NCAA championships than Manchester United has league titles in England.

The résumé reads like an empire. Even in a sport like women's soccer that falls well short of football or men's basketball in the athletic department hierarchy, it might be reasonable to expect any such program to have adopted some of the vanities of royalty over the years. As if in answer, four white vans sat outside the burger joint near campus. Assistant coaches Bill Palladino and Chris Ducar and director of operations Tom Sander had the keys to three of them (entering his 18th season with the team, Ducar is the junior member of the trio). Dorrance had the fourth set of keys. The sport's version of John Wooden, Bear Bryant or Pat Summitt still drives his players around, like thousands of high school and youth league coaches throughout the country.

That isn't true for just this trip. Vans are the team's main method of transportation. On the road trips that require flights, the Tar Heels rent vans at the other end. Some of it is idiosyncratic. The vans offer more flexibility than charter buses, more control that the man in charge need not cede. Most of it, though, is simply practical. After all these years it's what makes the budget work.

For all but one of the past 10 years, the vans headed to Ocean Isle Beach, a town about three hours southeast of Chapel Hill and not far from the South Carolina border. After a preseason trip to England in advance of the 2003 season, the Tar Heels rolled to a 27-0-0 record and their 17th NCAA championship. Coaches and players liked the time together away from campus before the season. Instead of scattering after practice, the players spent time together. This year together means 36 of them in one house, along with Bartok, fellow undergraduate assistant Indi Cowie and athletic trainer Nicole Fava.

"We can't get away from each other if we tried, really, unless you wanted to swim pretty far out in the ocean," Bartok said. "There's 37-or-something girls in pretty much the same house, so we're kind of forced to spend a lot of time with each other. And we enjoy it. We're not jumping into the ocean to get away from each other."

No 'I' in this team

Two traits define North Carolina. The words ring hollow until you look again at the trophy case.

No players compete harder against each other. None play harder for each other. The time in Ocean Isle Beach reveals how they have come to coexist.

It was the week's first practice on a ragged high school field several miles from the ocean house, and senior Kelly McFarlane exuded something less than beach mellowness. Coaches had split the roster into four teams for a seven-on-seven possession drill, two games going on simultaneously in a round-robin format until the teams with the best record met in what was dubbed the "gold-medal" game. That the winning side didn't actually receive anything, other than the satisfaction of victory, didn't seem to matter to anyone. It certainly didn't matter to McFarlane.

Even as play continued around her in one game, McFarlane argued with Dorrance over his application of one of the drill's rules that cost her team the ball. When the time came for the top two teams in round-robin play to meet in the final, McFarlane's team was initially dispatched to the consolation game. A couple players started to walk toward that part of the field, but McFarlane made a beeline for Sander, North Carolina's keeper of the stats, to protest. There had to be a mistake. Her team should be in the final. The decision was reversed. McFarlane's team then won the final game.

Glory was fleeting. After a water break, a new drill began.

Maybe nobody likes a sore loser, but they turn a blind eye to sore winners here.

"A lot of what we do, because they're keeping score and because they're recording everything, it kind of brings that competitiveness out of people," McFarlane said. "I think I always have been competitive, but I think in this environment, it definitely kind of fosters that."

A health and human policy major who plans to go to medical school, McFarlane is downright genial away from the field, an agreeable, affable Californian who at one point sheepishly details the nutritionist-influenced grocery list she and the other seniors filled for the house at the expense of the junk food they wanted to buy. On the field, not so much.

Dorrance once tried to recruit McFarlane's mother to play soccer in college. She ran cross country for the Tar Heels instead. But years later, she sent her soccer-playing daughter across the country to the soccer camps the Tar Heels run in Chapel Hill. McFarlane wasn't a star recruit in those camps or part of any youth national team pools. She didn't really believe she was good enough to play at North Carolina. The coach concurred on first inspection. She was too slow, ungainly, not enough of an athlete to be of much recruiting interest. Except she played so damn hard.

She played at least 1,000 minutes in each of her first three seasons for the Tar Heels and seems ticketed for a starting role this season. She turned out to be such a quintessentially North Carolina player that Dorrance went out and got another McFarlane for this year's freshman class, Kelly's younger sister, Darcy.

North Carolina wouldn't be what it is without current and future national team talents like Crystal Dunn, Summer Green and Ohai. The list of current and former national team veterans in the soccer office goes on and on like the list of all-conference honorees at most schools. The program also wouldn't be what it is without players like McFarlane who may not play a minute beyond college.

Perhaps surprisingly for a program that doesn't have down years, only years in which it didn't win the championship, quite a bit has changed about the way North Carolina trains. Led by former assistant coach Cindy Parlow Cone, now the coach of NWSL's Portland Thorns FC, the Tar Heels last season overhauled their training philosophy to align with that of Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen. It's a name you hear a lot talking to Dorrance. Even the players, few of whom are avid soccer watchers and wouldn't know Marco van Basten from Johan Cruyff, comfortably drop his name. In grossly oversimplified terms, Verheijen dissents from what he feels is a culture of overtraining in soccer. His model suggests it is better to do more with less, utilizing short intervals of intense training.

To the consternation of some soccer alumni, and even the seniors who lobbied throughout this particular week for more practice and more running, preseason is not as brutal as it once was.

What will never change is that culture of competition. Practices are intense. Elbows and expletives fly, forearms lodge against lower backs, and players go into tackles with gusto. At one point Dorrance reminded the players before a drill began, "We are not injuring each other; we are teammates."

Battered bodies are one product of the intensity. No more than 10 minutes after the coach's warning, highly touted freshman Emily Bruder went down with an injury, although one she appeared to suffer without contact from a teammate. She sat out subsequent practices and a scrimmage against Wofford. Bruised egos would seem a more common concern, but either the players hide those wounds well or what happens on the field really does stay there. Within an hour of slamming into each other on the practice field and listening to McFarlane, Ohai and others gripe about every point in drills, the same players took to the beach together with an inflatable killer whale and other ocean-going flotation devices.

"Sometimes it's tricky," McFarlane said. "Sometimes people may be pissed about something a little bit after practice. But it's just the way our culture is set up. Everybody is going hard to make each other better. At the end of the day, we want our practices to be hard, and we want to put pressure on each other in practice so we're ready for games. Everybody respects that."

That the entire system is set up as a meritocracy, brutal and unforgiving though it may be, must play some role. Perhaps it is harder to nurse a grudge when you know you ultimately control your own fate. Every player is on equal footing just before she gets knocked on her rear end.

Dorrance describes his lineup as forever fluid. That's a kind way to describe it, as the back line learned this preseason. Over the course of a few days, defenders Satara Murray and Hanna Gardner both drew less than rave reviews from their coach. Shortly before leaving for the beach he suggested Gardner, a walk-on who was a breakout performer in the postseason a year ago and subsequently earned time in the under-20 national team player pool, was competing for her job against "any defender who looks good when Hanna Gardner screws up."

Murray, a starter in each of her first two seasons and the Most Outstanding Defensive Player in the College Cup, so infuriated Dorrance with a lackluster practice later in the week that he pondered dropping her from the starting lineup on the eve of the scrimmage against Wofford just to send a message.

Katie Bowen, an immensely talented sophomore defender and midfielder who went to the 2012 Olympics with New Zealand's senior national team, did lose a place with the first unit, at least temporarily.

Let coaches draft from the entire college soccer player pool and they wouldn't get through too many lineups before all three of those players heard their names called. But here they aren't immune. No one is.

Just about the only veteran defender who escaped rebuke was junior Caitlin Ball, a walk-on from Chapel Hill who was so under the radar that Dorrance once told her not to bother coming out for the team.

Palladino, the architect of the defense and one of the most trusted and influential assistants in the college game, went to see Ball play in high school and came away underwhelmed. Dorrance went to a different game, but left with a similar takeaway. Ball recalled a phone conversation that followed in which Dorrance told her it probably wasn't worth her time to try to walk on. The news was disappointing but not exactly earth-shattering. She hadn't really planned on playing college soccer and was going to North Carolina anyway. But she had already signed up to play for a club team the summer after high school graduation and her mom wouldn't let her back out of her first practice after the conversation with Dorrance.

By the end of that summer, her club team won a major tournament and her coach begged Dorrance and Palladino to take another look at the local kid. A week before the preseason, she went to Dorrance's house for an interview. He asked her if she was a psycho. She said she wasn't. He invited her to walk on. By the end of September she was a starter. But for injury, she has been ever since.

She earned her security, even if doing so meant coaches admitting their own recruiting miscalculation.

These were the lessons all 12 of the freshmen were expected to learn as the preseason progressed.

Like several classmates, newcomer Joanna Boyles is a fixture in the youth national system. She played for the United States in last year's Under-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan. She graduated from high school early and won't turn 18 until November, so she could conceivably play in the next two Under-20 World Cups. She is technically skilled beyond her years and scored plenty of goals in club soccer. That isn't what will get her on the field in Chapel Hill this season. Another of Dorrance's favorite sayings is that if you can defend, you will play. If you can defend for five minutes, you will play five minutes.

Through the first few days of preseason, Dorrance said he wasn't sure Boyles would see the field as a freshman. It was hard to tell if he was exaggerating.

By the time the scrimmage against Wofford rolled around midway through beach week, Boyles played more minutes than anyone on the roster. She threw her body into challenges -- too willingly at one point, drawing a rebuke from Dorrance for a reckless slide tackle. She didn't back down from a few post-whistle wrestling matches when her arms and legs got entangled with an opponent. It was still something closer to raw defensive energy than polished defensive awareness, but it would do.

She'll play, if she keeps it up. Perhaps a lot. A week before classes started, she had passed her first test.

"Honestly it doesn't matter, it does not matter how great you are technically or goal-scoring-wise, you have to lay your body on the line," Boyles said. "And if you don't, you won't play. And I think it's all about finding that within yourself and you have to kind of dig that out of you. It's something inside of you that you have to find in order to play.

"I think the past couple of days, I think I've really found that. I'm excited about it."

The winning standard

Alabama football. Connecticut women's basketball. Kentucky men's basketball. A lot of programs face championship expectations every season. Only at North Carolina does the historical record suggest it's not an unreasonable standard, even as the list of championship programs doubled since 2000. No longer can the Tar Heels realistically win every year, but all that history makes it feel like they should.

"You have to understand the expectations here -- it sometimes feels, especially on us, there's a lot of pressure," Bartok said. "It's like if you don't win, you're a failure.

"We feel that. As much as Anson doesn't want us to feel that, it's inevitable."

Playing for the Tar Heels requires thick skin. And perhaps the ability to stretch a metaphor to its breaking point.

One evening on the deck of the beach house, Gardner and freshman Sarah Ashley Firstenberg stood opposite each other and took turns slapping each other in the face. The sound of a hand connecting with cheek elicited either approving cheers or critical jeers from teammates, at least those not doubled over in laughter. It wasn't a simmering feud from the field that boiled over. Gardner and Firstenberg grinned and egged each other on. It wasn't a fight -- it was a contest.

Everything was a contest in Ocean Isle. Tanning became a contest. Board games and puzzles became contests far more heated than the designers probably ever intended.

College students find curious ways to amuse themselves. Competitive college students in a confined space for an extended period all the more.

"I think even our games we play off the field are super competitive," Dunn said of the slap spectacle. "I think that's what drives our program, but we do it in a friendly way. We're not killing each other. We're just bringing that competitive atmosphere in everything. I think it's important, not just on the field."

There are surely times when it isn't fun, when the competitiveness gets to be a bit much or when a morning arrives when you just don't feel like being graded on every minor technical detail against 30-plus other people. Or when you would like to play more than 10 minutes a game. And if it was only about soccer, only about winning drills, winning games -- winning everything -- it might all fall apart.

If that were all it was about, there wouldn't have been a van full of players singing the Celine Dion song from "Titanic" as they waited for one of the other vans to arrive at a destination.

They wouldn't like each other as much as they clearly do if soccer were all there was. Dorrance could get them to compete against each other. Only they can choose to play for each other.

When Bartok was being recruited, people at other schools gave her as many reasons why she shouldn't choose North Carolina as why she should choose their school. It was a military atmosphere. She wouldn't play. She wouldn't have any fun. They recruited people so they wouldn't have to play against them. It was part of the reason she took it upon herself to start the behind-the-scenes Twitter feed when she was a sophomore in Chapel Hill (there is also now an official feed for the more mundane matters). What people saw of the Tar Heels on the field was part of the program's identity but not all of it. She wanted people to understand why when she went home for the holidays and listened to friends who played for other schools gripe about who had it worst with coaches, teammates or some other irritant, she sat in awkward silence. She wasn't a star. She didn't start. She just didn't have any complaints.

"The culture of the team is everyone is here because they love the game, they love to play," sophomore Caroline Lindquist said. "But once you get to know every individual, everyone has their story. I would never say anyone on this team is a soccer robot. There are definitely people who love the game, but I think that makes them more interesting than mechanical."

Late in the week, Dorrance came back of his own volition to the subject of when he might call it quits. Give him enough of a stake to put him in the game -- give him a couple of players like Dunn, Green and Ohai are and Boyles, Bruder and Amber Munerlyn could be -- and he'll keep doing it. The culture of competition will find the rest. It is what he waits to see each summer.

"There are moments that define you," Dorrance said. "We're all looking for those moments in the preseason. Ideally, you're also looking for those moments in the recruiting process, but there's no game that we can see at younger levels that can replicate one of my practices. My practices are the cauldron where we've got to sort out what this alloy is going to become.

"It's tremendous. That's why I can't sleep right now because I am so excited about every single practice."

Everything begins again in August. Same as it always was.