North Carolina's Adelaide Gay proves she belongs

Graham Hays/ESPN.com

Adelaide Gay has allowed just seven goals in more than 1,300 minutes in three seasons for the Tar Heels since transferring from Yale.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There have surely been less inspiring recruiting pitches than the one Adelaide Gay received when she spoke to University of North Carolina soccer coach Anson Dorrance about transferring after her freshman season at Yale. But you would need time and patience to unearth one.

"Don't come; you're never going to play," Dorrance recalled telling the goalkeeper in a phone conversation. "Can you actually touch the crossbar? Why would you ever get on the field for the University of North Carolina?"

Well, then.

Three years later, Gay has allowed just seven goals in more than 1,300 minutes on the field since relocating to Chapel Hill, proving that she is not only good enough to play for the Tar Heels, but that she has made them better because of her desire to do so. For a program that has filled World Cup rosters with its legends, the indefatigable senior walk-on transfer is both an unlikely success story and proof that the players make the program.

I think the one thing about being at UNC is I never felt like the coaches counted me out or anything. I wanted to be here more for the fact that I wanted to train with the best and I wanted to prove to myself that that's where I deserved to be.
Goalkeeper Adelaide Gay on transferring from Yale to North Carolina

"Anyway, she absolutely disobeyed me," Dorrance said. "She could tell when I was speaking to her on the phone that I liked her -- I do like her; she's incredibly likable. But you know what? The little kid's a gamer."

That doesn't make it any easier for Lori and John Gay, who aren't just soccer parents but goalkeeper parents. Most of the Tar Heels supporters who made the trip to a recent tournament sat near midfield, but the Gays sat off to one side, almost in line with the goal where their daughter and other keepers went through their practice routines. It was the best vantage point from which to watch her before the game, and the goal in question was the same one she would protect in the first half, the only half she was likely to play in Dorrance's keeper rotation. So there Lori and John sat, not so much basking in the moment as biting their nails like parents of goalkeepers everywhere, aware that success and failure at that position is less subjective than for any other player on the field.

"It's one of these things where if the goalkeeper screws up, it's a goal and everybody sees it," said her father, himself a former keeper. "Forwards will not get it right six or seven times out of eight, and that's fine if they get it right once. But the further back you go on defense, the more pressure there is to be perfect."

Nowhere is the pressure for perfection more a part of the culture than at North Carolina. It remains the gold standard of women's college soccer as the winner of 20 NCAA championships. More and more programs now challenge for supremacy, but no other name carries the same connotations or has the same visibility. Scaled for the reach of the sport, North Carolina is to women's soccer what Connecticut and Tennessee are to women's basketball. Its name stands for the sport itself. It's a team that youth players everywhere want to play for, a young keeper in New Jersey being no different.

"I remember when I was about 10 thinking that's where I want to go to school," Gay recalled. "At that point, you don't really know what it means."

Gay was a prep standout and played high-level club soccer, the proving ground of the youth game. She even attended goalkeeping camps, where she worked with Chris Ducar, North Carolina's longtime assistant coach and goalkeeping guru. She was a college-level recruit, but there are more than 300 programs in Division I that are not North Carolina. At 5-foot-6, she is small for an elite keeper and doesn't have the off-the-charts athleticism that might make up the difference of a few inches. Good, but seemingly not quite good enough for North Carolina.

Yale showed the most interest during the recruiting process. It wasn't North Carolina, but it was a successful Ivy League program that had reached the round of 16 in 2005 under current coach Rudy Meredith.

Graham Hays

Goalie Adelaide Gay, flanked by Summer Green, left, and Amber Brooks, has started seven games this season.

"She's a die-hard soccer junkie that wants to play; that's one of the reasons you like the kid because she really, really wants to play," Meredith said. "As far as her work ethic, catching the ball, footwork, all that stuff is good. The thing about her is just she works harder than anybody that I ever had as a goalkeeper. She works really, really hard."

Gay played sparingly as a freshman at Yale, waiting behind older keepers on the depth chart. Then she spent the summer playing with the Pali Blues in the W-League. Among her teammates were Whitney Engen, Nikki Washington and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, then rising seniors at North Carolina who that fall went on to win their third NCAA title in four seasons.

Being around them, listening to them talk about North Carolina, she felt the tug of that old dream. On the eve of her sophomore season at Yale, she decided to transfer.

Even before the conversation with Dorrance, she told her parents she understood there was a strong possibility she would never see the field if she walked on at North Carolina. She also understood that following her instincts in this case meant leaving teammates who had become friends and coaches who recruited her when bigger programs did not. She understood it wasn't a decision without consequences.

"She'd never been a quitter, and she didn't want to feel like she was giving up on something," her mother said. "She really thought it through. But I felt it was empowering for a young person to know, whatever in life, whether it's a bad relationship or a job, you have the power to change it. In that sense, it was huge, a huge life lesson."

Gay reached out to Ducar, who thought highly of her after their past encounters. She wasn't dissuaded by Dorrance, who is often forced to be the harsh messenger of reality for high school players or potential transfers who are convinced that they will earn minutes if they get their foot in the door. In Gay's case, the Tar Heels already had several keepers by the time she took the field in 2010 -- among them, highly touted freshman Hannah Daly and sophomore Anna Sieloff. With those two splitting halves, Gay played 96 minutes in six appearances during the 2010 season.

But far from feeling like an overlooked or unwanted extra at the end of the bench, Gay found exactly what she was looking for in Chapel Hill.

"I think the one thing about being at UNC is I never felt like the coaches counted me out or anything," Gay said. "I wanted to be here more for the fact that I wanted to train with the best and I wanted to prove to myself that that's where I deserved to be. And it's where I wanted to be. I wanted to be there training every day because in reality, especially for a goalkeeper, the majority of what you do is in practice. You practice four or five times more than you play. I really wanted to be somewhere where I wanted to be there every single day."

It turned out the Tar Heels needed her almost every day last season. With Daly sidelined by injury for all but two games and Sieloff also hurt early, Gay started 18 games and allowed just four goals.

The starter in seven of her team's first eight games this season entering Thursday's game against Virginia Tech (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET), Gay once again faces a challenge for playing time, as well as she has performed. North Carolina recently reclaimed the services of freshman Bryane Heaberlin, the starting goalkeeper for the United States team that won the Under-20 Women's World Cup in Japan this month. Rated by some as the nation's No. 1 high school recruit, Heaberlin is the prototypical North Carolina building block, a star in waiting who won't wait to play.

It does a disservice to Gay's competitiveness to suggest that she doesn't care if she plays. Yet her playing time will not define a happy ending. What she wanted was a chance to be part of a soccer environment that she believed was unlike any other, an environment, it turns out, that exists in large part because people like her believe in it.

"She reads the game incredibly well," Dorrance said. "She's made some wonderful saves this season already. But beyond that, beyond her goalkeeping capabilities, she's just a wonderful human being. I just love that she didn't listen to me and she came anyway.

"She's not just a very intelligent young woman; she's a sweet, thoughtful human being."

And as it turns out, a perfect fit for the program.

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