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Friday, January 4, 2013
Bryane Heaberlin perseveres after tough stretch

By Graham Hays

The United States absorbed surge after surge from Germany in the frantic final minutes of the championship game of last fall's FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup. A goal late in the first half had given the Americans a 1-0 lead, but as stoppage time ticked away in the second half with the score unchanged, a ball squirted loose from a crowd in front of the American goal, falling to the feet of a German player with a chance to draw her team level.

She shot low to the near post from little more than 10 yards out. Goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin dived to her left and made the save.

In front of a crowd of more than 30,000 fans in Japan, amidst the most nerve-jangling moments of the most important game, Heaberlin put her right hand on the ball to steady herself and got to her feet with a grin that seemed to stretch from goalpost to goalpost.

All she could think about was that her team was going to win the World Cup. The final whistle soon confirmed as much.

Goalkeepers spend a lot of time getting back to their feet, sometimes with a trophy-saving stop to smile about or with the ball in the back of the net behind them. Heaberlin, 19, is one of the position's most talented prospects and engaging personalities in recent years, not only because she stops everything, but because of what she learned when she picked herself up off the ground time and again.

"I don't think she's ever swayed from her goals," said United States U-20 national team coach Steve Swanson. "She has high aspirations, and I think she has a belief in herself. So no matter what happens to her, whether it's a significant injury or a difficult loss, I think Bry's the kind of person who is going to pick herself up and get back at it. That's one of things that I think, as coaches, we all admire about her."

The ultimate goal

The satisfaction of diving to the ground over and over again on a muddy practice field first drew Heaberlin, then an outfield player, to the position when she was almost a teenager. All the kids liked pretending to be the keeper in the mud. In her words, she was the "not so bright" one who never went back to her real position. Within a few years, she was starting for the United States on the U-17 national team.

The United States won all three of its group games in the 2010 Under-17 Women's World Cup qualifying tournament and outscored its opponents 32-0 in the process. But after playing 120 minutes of scoreless soccer in a semifinal against Canada, the Americans fell 5-3 in a penalty shootout. The team went on to beat Costa Rica 6-0 in the third-place game, but failed to earn one of two spots in the World Cup later that year despite not conceding a non-shootout goal during the entire tournament. It was a stunning development for such a global power in women's soccer.

I realized somewhat quickly after the U-17 qualifier that everything does happen for a reason. I was able to open my eyes to helping other people.

-- Bryane Heaberlin

Four months later, Heaberlin watched as a reserve as another shootout exit unfolded in front of her. This time, it was Nigeria that eliminated the United States well before its time. She also lost a high school state championship match and an Olympic Development Program national championship game that same year -- both in penalty shootouts.

"It was a rough year for PKs for me," Heaberlin wryly noted.

But that was also a year when many fans with only a passing interest in soccer learned of Heaberlin, a year when her actions off the field said more than any losses on it. One of the teams the United States beat in the U-17 qualifying tournament was Haiti, whose mere presence at the tournament was noteworthy in the wake of the earthquake that had devastated the country only months earlier. Out of a hug Heaberlin shared with a Haitian player grew Many Hearts, One Goal, a foundation she created to help Haitian girls pursue soccer and the opportunities the sport created.

Two years later, there is less attention paid to both Haiti and Heaberlin's efforts, but the foundation remains active. The new challenge is trying to help a member of the Haitian team attend junior college in the United States.

"I realized somewhat quickly after the U-17 qualifier that everything does happen for a reason," Heaberlin said. "I was able to open my eyes to helping other people. Through the U-17 qualifiers, I found my passion for helping others. So I created my foundation and tried to help the U-17 Haitian national team as much as I could.

"And then, through the [2010] U-20 World Cup, I learned so much. I think that if I wouldn't have gone to that World Cup and lost in PKs to Nigeria, I wouldn't have helped my team win this last U-20 World Cup."

A broken leg in 2011 threatened to keep her from that victory, but Heaberlin started 10 of 11 games across the qualifying tournament and World Cup last year. She followed that with an NCAA championship at the University of North Carolina. Although Heaberlin was a reserve during the title run for the Tar Heels, she was called off the bench for a penalty shootout against Baylor in the Sweet 16.

This time, she got to celebrate.

Heaberlin is as sure of the future that awaits her as you might expect of someone who drives a 1965 Ford Mustang, candy red with white racing stripes, but it's not the youthful confidence of someone who doesn't know any better.

"She's actually quite spirited," Swanson said. "I think she's a fun person to be around, in terms of she's not scared to wind people up. She'll keep things lively, she's confident in her abilities and those kinds of things. And yet I think there is a side to her that is very cerebral, that wants to help, that looks for ways to help others in need."