Everyone knows that champions are made in the offseason. The training and sacrifice of what you do when no one is looking paves the way for success when the lights are the brightest.
That remains true for UConn and star striker O'Brian White. However, this year's success -- both collectively and individually -- can be traced back to the 2006 season in which the squad was very un-UConn. The Huskies were 10-7-2 and were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Not a terrible year, but not quite up to the standard of UConn soccer.
To hear White tell it, it's as if they didn't win a game.
"We didn't have a good year last year," he admits. "We had problems with players accepting their responsibilities and roles. We had to learn to respect each other and work harder, and be responsible for ourselves.
"I felt horrible," White said. "It's kind of helped us, though, for this year. We knew that if we didn't come out and play our best that we would have a year like that. We have to come out really strong and leave everything out on the field."
That "attitude adjustment" started in the spring and has carried through the summer into this fall season. The Huskies are back on their perch among the game's elite and are in the hunt once again for the national title. And it's not just that they're winning -- it's the way they're winning, dispatching teams by wide margins. UConn has won seven games by three goals or more this season and has a 41-goal margin over teams on the season.
A majority of those scores have come from White, a Jamaican-born player who moved to Canada when he was 16 years old to live with his mother (he still plays in the Jamaican national team system). White has been virtually unstoppable for the Huskies this season, piling up hat tricks and goals on his way to re-writing the UConn record book and leading the NCAA in scoring this season.
"He's much more awake, more engaged and he's really working hard," head coach Ray Reid says in comparing this year's version of O'Brian White to last year's. "As a team, we are more focused and serious, and O'Brian has great players that are getting him the ball."
"Obviously, I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates," says White. "We've really been playing together since the spring, and we understand the way each other plays. When they have the ball, they understand by my movements what to do with it. We're able to communicate non-verbally, which is great."
White had always been able to finish -- it was being able to put himself in position to finish is what has made the difference this season. He worked extensively in the summer to improve his movement off the ball, which has obviously paid off this fall. He also credits everyone doing the little things for such a big impact on his individual scoring numbers.
As impressive as those scoring totals are, it is equally as impressive that those numbers haven't dipped as teams have been able to focus and prepare for him -- he's scored at least a goal or an assist in six of his last eight games.
"Teams are definitely marking me hard, sometimes with two people," White says. "Coach said that when you get to a certain point that that's what happens and I have to get used to it.
"I just have to try to stay mobile so they have a harder time staying with me," he continues. "If I just stand there it's easier for them to win the ball, but if I'm moving and my teammates are pushing the ball, it makes it difficult for them to focus on one player."
The focus, though, is on White as the leader for this year's M.A.C. Hermann Trophy. Just like a quarterback with great numbers on a winning football team, outstanding numbers from a forward on a winning team are a great recipe for winning college soccer's most prestigious individual trophy. But like a great striker who thinks only about his next shot, his next goal, White is just thinking about the next game.
"I never really think about it -- I didn't even know I was named a semifinalist, someone had to tell me I made it," he says. "It would be a great accomplishment, but I'm thinking about the next game right now." White is so focused on this year's team and winning a national title that he hasn't given much thought to next year and possible professional opportunities.
No, he won't get caught looking ahead, not even a little. It's those lessons learned from last year that have allowed him and the team to have bountiful success this season -- lessons he refuses to forget.
Adam Zundell is a contributor to ESPN.com. His 2005 story on Jason Garey, "The Kid Can Play," won first place in the College Division in the NSCAA's annual writing contest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.