Limited Chances

Noonan’s Work as UNC’s Goalkeeper is Judged by Quality – Not Quantity

~ By Tim Nash, from ACCWeek

CHAPEL HILL—On the surface, playing in goal for the women’s soccer team at North Carolina appears to be just slightly more exciting than sitting on the bench. Tar Heel goalkeeper traditionally has been the loneliest job in college soccer.

The action is almost always at the other end of the field, and there is hardly ever anyone to talk to. Even the photographers are at the other end. The ballgirls behind the goal, at least, are busy for half the game.

But every year, UNC seems to have someone in goal who – when and if the time ever comes – can make the big save. Why is that? How can a goalkeeper at North Carolina stay sharp when game action is so rare?

Tracy Noonan, a senior keeper at UNC, has the answer.

“Every day in practice, I get shelled,” she says as if the mere thought of it is exhausting.

That’s the secret of North Carolina goalies. They develop into outstanding keepers because, in practice every day, their teammates show no mercy. On a daily basis, Carolina keepers face some of the best goalscorers with the hardest and most accurate shots in the country.

Although practices are brutal, there is an enormous amount of pressure on a Tar Heel keeper during games. In a sport where a team can outshoot opponents 20-1 and lose 1-0, the outcome could come down to a single lapse in concentration. And in a program that has lost just nine of 348 games (through Sept. 23), no goalkeeper wants to be responsible for a loss.

Noonan played 1,395 minutes last season and made 31 saves, which conveniently averages out to one save every 45 minutes. Heading into the 1995 season, she had 67 saves in 2,791 career minutes, or one every 41 minutes. So on the average, Noonan makes one save per half.

No one has to explain to her that she needs to stay sharp for 90 minutes. The key for her is to keep track of what her defenders are doing, making sure every opponent is covered. And it’s not as if she wants to be busy.

“I stay in the game by communicating with my teammates,” Noonan said. “I’m yelling to them the entire game, telling them who to cover and reassuring them.”

And Noonan, who was unanimously elected co-captain by her teammates, is communicating more than ever this year.

Over the years, Coach Anson Dorrance’s teams have depended on strong senior leadership. This year, Noonan – who turned 22 in June – is the old lady of the team and the only senior who will see significant playing time. In fact, she is one of just three seniors on the roster.

The Tar Heels start three juniors, four sophomores, three freshmen and Noonan. It helps, however, that one junior (co-captain Debbie Keller) and one freshman (Tiffany Roberts) played for the U.S. Women’s National Team this summer in the FIFA Women’s World Championship.

“Every team has had a different personality, and we have always had great leaders on our team” Noonan said. “This year, it’s up to Debbie and me. We’ve been around it for a while. And Tiffany certainly knows the level needed here. She sets a good example for the freshmen.”

* * *

In 1994, Noonan split time with senior Shelley Finger in a platoon system designed by Dorrance to ensure that both keepers stayed sharp and hungry throughout the season. Noonan compiled a 0.39 goals-against average, racked up 11 shutouts, earned first-team All-ACC honors and emerged as one of the nation’s top keepers.

She entered her senior year as a Soccer News preseason All-America, a rare achievement for North Carolina keepers because of their lack of exposure. But her first priority is helping lead the Tar Heels to their 14th national championship (including the AIAW title in 1981) and their 10th consecutive NCAA championship.

“Being a leader is kind of new to me,” Noonan said. “I talked with Anson about it during the offseason, and I talked to Deb about it too. She basically takes care of the offensive half of the field and I take care of the defensive half.”

It worked well in the Heels’ first six games. In helping UNC to a 6-0 record, Noonan allowed just one goal in 450 minutes of action, thank in part, she says, to a “friendly left post.”

Noonan, however, figures to have more company around her goal as the year wears on. The Tar Heels are young, and there are teams around the country – Portland, Stanford, Duke, Notre Dame – that are loaded with talent and experience.

She should be ready, though.

Last year, Noonan allowed just six goals in 26 games. One of the 31 saves she made was proof that when called upon, she would respond. Early in the second half of Carolina’s 5-0 victory against Notre Dame in the national championship match, with the outcome in doubt, Noonan gracefully flew through a crowd of players to expertly snag an Irish cross.

After catching the ball, Noonan crashed to the turf while Notre Dame players surrounded her waiting for the rebound that never came. Noonan got up quickly, having learned to take the punishment every day in practice.

Four years before making that save, Noonan was lying in a hospital bed, with her chances of playing soccer again very low.

In her junior year at North Andover (Mass.) High School, she was severely injured while playing basketball – she cracked a vertebra in her lower back and missed four months of school and her junior year of soccer.

College recruiters backed off.

“She basically came here as a walk-on and fought for playing time,” Dorrance said. “She is the type of story coaches like to tell – a kid who plays with her heart. She’s the type of player you want to celebrate.

“She’s a player who has worked herself to death to be a part of this program.”

And being part of the program means getting shelled every day.

Article used with permission