Tenacity Pays Off Big for Noonan

~ By Steve Kirschner, from Glaxo Wellcome Honors

Tracy Noonan knows what it is like to have time on her hands. More importantly she knows it is crucial to make the most of every opportunity which comes her way.

As the last line of defense on Carolina’s nine-time defending national champion women’s soccer team, Noonan, a senior goalie from North Andover, Mass., knows she has to get it right every time she has a chance to make a save. After all, shots don’t come her way very often and when they do she has to be ready.

“Most people don’t think there is a lot of pressure being the goalie at Carolina, but that’s simply not the case,” says Noonan. “There is a lot more pressure on you mentally than keepers at other schools face because of the concentration factor. You might see just one shot on goal the entire game, and if the opposition gets a shot off on our defense, chances are it will be a good one. If it’s not a really good shot then players like Staci Wilson and Nel Fettig will get to it before I have to. They don’t allow many bad ones to be taken. So I have to be on my toes and ready at all times.”

Playing in goal for the Tar Heels does put a player in a rather unusual position. The most extensive shot barrage a UNC goalie faces is often in practice as she trains with and against her teammates. Facing an average of less than four shots on goal per game might be more mentally than physically taxing, but consider each day in practice Noonan and the rest of the goalies face a constant assault from national-caliber strikers such as Debbie Keller, Robin Confer and Cindy Parlow. That trio has combined for 33 goals in the first 14 games of the 1995 season and helped the Tar Heels jump out to a 14-0 record and the top ranking in the country.

“The competition here has made me such a better player,” Noonan says. “Every day at practice is a battle; it really is a high level of training. That is what pushes me to get better.”

Noonan has made great strides in her game since she arrived on campus in the fall of 1991. Considering the fact that two years earlier she had to sit out her junior season of high school due to back surgery, the development she has made is even more remarkable.

During her sophomore year at North Andover High School, located about 30 miles north of Boston, Noonan got jammed between two opposing players while fighting for a rebound in a basketball game. The original injury occurred in February, but it was not until six months later that doctors realized Noonan had suffered an ailment called spondylolisthesis. In English, that is a crack of the transverse processes of the fifth lumbar vertebrae. In my English, that’s known as a broken back.

That setback didn’t keep her sidelined for long, however. By the following summer Noonan was back at camp and back between the posts. As a senior she led North Andover to a 19-1 record and posted 16 shutouts in 20 games en route to being selected the conference player of the year and first-team all-state.

Noonan red-shirted her freshman season at Carolina and for three years competed for the starting job with three-time all-conference goalie Shelley Finger. Noonan made just 14 starts in her first two seasons, but started 15 of the 26 games a year ago. Head Coach Anson Dorrance played each goalie for 45 minutes a game during the regular season, but by postseason Noonan had won the job.

She allowed a total of three goals in four NCAA Tournament games and posted back-to-back shutouts over Connecticut and top-ranked Notre Dame in the national semifinals and finals. Noonan played her finest collegiate match to date when it counted the most – against the Fighting Irish in the NCAA title game.

“Without a doubt, at the collegiate level the NCAA championship game against Notre Dame is my greatest thrill,” says Noonan, who went on to earn first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference and third-team All-America honors.

Noonan’s tenacity continues to reap dividends. A co-captain along with Keller, Noonan is the one of only three seniors on this year’s team and the only one featured in the starting lineup. That makes her one of the leaders on a squad which faces every opponent’s best shot in each and every game.

Through the first 14 games Noonan posted eight and one-half shutouts with 20 saves and just three goals allowed. Soccer America named her to its 1995 preseason All-America Team and she is one of ten finalists for the Missouri Athletic Club’s National Player of the Year award. She was in goal as Carolina blanked Notre Dame, 2-0, last Sunday in the adidas/Chevron Challenge in Houston, Texas.

With less than two months of collegiate soccer to play, Noonan has set her eyes on a possible career in physical therapy. “Maybe it’s because of all the time I spent in rehabilitation myself, but I am looking at physical therapy schools and would love to stay right here at Carolina,” Noonan says. “I love the fact that the college and the community are the same entity. Franklin Street is right there on the side of the campus. The people here are outgoing, very athletic and health-conscious, and pretty liberal. It is a young community and I like that.”

Noonan, pardon the pun, is the backbone of one of the best Carolina defenses in history. Led by Noonan, Fettig, Amy Roberts, Vanessa Rubio and Wilson, a top candidate for National Player-of-the-Year honors, the Tar Heels can choke off an opposing team’s passing lanes and disrupt even the most direct attacks. Noonan is the maestro of this finely-tuned operation.

“I may not have to make a lot of saves each game, so I have to lead by communication,” she explains. “The entire game you can probably hear me communicating with my defense, checking with them to make sure they know where the players they’re marking are. I try to encourage them, help them and be real positive. That keeps me in tune with the game.”

The Tar Heels will attempt to win their 10th consecutive national title and 14th overall when the NCAA championships come to Chapel Hill on December 1st and 3rd. Plenty of soccer remains between now and then, though, but whenever the season comes to an end, Noonan knows what she leaves behind.

“The encouragement you get from your teammates, the really good friendships and bonds the players make, that is what I will miss the most. This becomes your family.”

And you have become the foundation for its success.

Article used with permission