Previewing the Hermann Trophy race
O'Brian White came back to Connecticut to win a national championship. He came back to earn a degree. He came back to win another M.A.C. Hermann Trophy?
Don't get the wrong idea. White, a senior, would love to bag another Hermann. However, the diploma and hardware -- as in the College Cup championship plaque -- come first.
"In my mind, that made it easy," White said. "To win [the Hermann] would be nice, but I think we have the team to win the national championship this year. Last year ended badly for us. So I'm going to go out there more focused and just play my game."
And if he does that, White could win another Hermann, given each year to the top men's and women's college players in the nation.
White headlines the list of top five men's and women's contenders for the award.
O'Brian White, forward, UConn. If he had left Storrs, Hermann in hand, White would have been one of the top picks in January's MLS SuperDraft.
Or he could be playing somewhere overseas. Instead, White looks to dominate the Big East again. He scored a school-record 23 goals with seven assists last season.
He can become the first player to pull off a Hermann repeat since the University of Virginia's Mike Fisher in 1995-96.
"O'Brian has to concentrate every day," UConn coach Ray Reid said. "Last year was last year. It's all about what O'Brian does this year. I think he understands that."
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Marcus Tracy, forward, Wake Forest. His dramatic goals helped Wake Forest win the College Cup last year.
Tracy's big-game heroics last year included two goals in the Demon Deacons' College Cup semifinal win over Virginia Tech and the game-tying tally in the championship against Ohio State.
Tracy, a senior, was named the College Cup's Most Outstanding Offensive Player. He finished Wake's glorious season with 11 goals and nine assists. "I think Marcus really matured during the [College Cup] and will only get better," said Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich. "The thing I really like about him is that he always seems to make something out of nothing. His speed and ability in the air make him so dangerous."
Akeem Priestly, midfielder, UConn. UConn coach Reid, straight shooter that he is, thinks that White, Priestly and UConn junior midfielder Toni Stahl are three of the top five players in the nation. More on Stahl later. As for Priestly, he's a brilliant playmaker, gifted with creativity -- especially on the fly -- and great vision. Priestly, a senior, had four goals and 13 assists last year.
Brad Ring, midfielder, Indiana. Entering preseason camp, Ring felt the Hoosiers needed more leadership than they have received in previous years.
So he became the voice of the team, talking it up even more during practices, and in the locker room. Ring's teammates responded by naming him Indiana's captain for 2008.
Ring, who had five goals and six assists last season, controls the midfield with his physical play. He was a Hermann semifinalist.
"[Ring] is just so hard-nosed; he's such a great competitor," Ohio State coach John Bluem said. "He's a physical player. He drives that team; he sets the tone."
Bright Dike, forward, Notre Dame. Meet the long shot on the list. Dike didn't even play last season, sitting out because he was short classroom credits, entering his junior year.
Still, he's an intriguing prospect, and Notre Dame coaches think Dike (pronounced DK) could have a breakout year. Just like Joseph Lapira, who blew up for 22 goals for Notre Dame two years ago, winning the Hermann. Lapira had seven the previous season.
Dike's speed, size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and athleticism make him a handful to mark.
"Nobody knows how to handle him," said Harvard coach Jamie Clark, who served as an assistant coach at Notre Dame in 2006-07. "He just has a different type of physique and can crush the ball with both feet. I think he could score a lot of goals this year."
Other candidates to watch
Stahl, UConn. Might be one of the five best players in the nation. He has offensive capability and is a ball-winning machine. Said Clark of Stahl: "I think he might be one of the best pro prospects in college soccer." However, with White and Priestly in the fold, Stahl likely won't be able to pick up Hermann-like stats.
Alejandro Bedoya, midfielder, Boston College. Bedoya transferred from Fairleigh-Dickinson last year to face better competition. He proved he can hang in the ACC, scoring eight goals with 10 assists.
Andre Akpan, forward, Harvard. Clark thinks Akpan, a junior, can score 20 goals this season. He put up 14 a year ago.
Stefan Frei, goalkeeper, University of California. Frei, a first-team All-American as a junior last year, had nine shutouts and an 0.77 goals-against average.
Yael Averbuch, midfielder, North Carolina. Carolina scored 56 goals last year -- its lowest total in the 31 years of the storied program. Averbuch had six goals and six assists, a year after going 16 and seven, finishing third in the Hermann voting. Not a problem. North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance expects Averbuch, a senior, to have her biggest season yet.
"Yael loves the game so much, her game is on a never-ending ascension," Dorrance said. "But I think, with an award like this, a lot will have to do with how we do as a team. Her teammates have to help put her on that platform."
Brittany Bock, midfielder/forward, Notre Dame. The complete package.
Bock's got a cannon for a shot -- off both sides -- she can score and finds open teammates. She's an aggressive tackler and, at 5-foot-9, she dominates on the ball. Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum moved Bock from the midfield up top last season, and she scored a career-high 16 goals.
"She's all power," Waldrum said. "Her size is overwhelming for other players. I think half of her goals during her career have been in the air. Brittany is just a handful."
Waldrum says he has yet to decide where Bock is playing this season. Wherever it is, expect opponents to have trouble handling her.
Lauren Cheney, forward, UCLA. Made a pretty good case to win the Hermann last year.
Cheney earned Soccer America Player of the Year after scoring 23 goals in 23 games. However, she finished second in the Hermann voting to Florida State's Mami Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi bypassed her senior year by signing with Umea IK of the All-Swedish League in March.
Meanwhile, Cheney, Abby Wambach's replacement on the U.S. women's Olympic team, is primed for a big junior year in SoCal.
"The Beijing experience will only help Lauren," said UCLA assistant coach Shannon MacMillan. "But I think she feels a little caged up not playing as much. I think she's going to come back and light it up."
Christina DiMartino, forward, UCLA. Go ahead, try to stop Cheney. Good luck trying, and don't forget about DiMartino: The player that makes UCLA go.
"Our whole game runs through her," MacMillan said.
Adds USC coach Ali Khosroshahin: "Quite frankly, if UCLA isn't playing its best, that's because Christina isn't playing her best. She's a special player." DiMartino, a junior, had six goals and 12 assists last year.
Amy Rodriguez, forward, USC. According to Khosroshahin, a year ago, Rodriguez was playing a little flat.
"I don't think she was having fun, and when you're not having fun, soccer becomes a chore," he said.
But Rodriguez eventually regained her A-Rod form. She helped USC win the national title and scored two goals in the Trojans' 2-1 College Cup semifinal win over rival UCLA. A-Rod finished with 10 goals last year.
Khosroshahin likes what he sees from Rodriguez's form with the U.S. national team at the Bejing Olympics. Rodriguez has been pressed into more playing time due to Abby Wambach's injury. "She's really going after it," he said. "It's been very exciting watching her. Amy looks extremely fit and is moving after the ball so well. I can't wait to have her back here."
Other candidates to watch
Kelley O'Hara, forward, Stanford. O'Hara, a junior, might not be in the stratosphere of fellow Pac-10ers Cheney-DiMartino-Rodriguez. "But she's close," Khosroshahin said. "I love the way she plays. She's a handful." O'Hara had nine goals and five assists last season.
Kerri Hanks, forward, Notre Dame. A lights-out finisher. As a sophomore two years ago, Hanks became the youngest winner of the Hermann (male or female), putting up 22 goals and 22 assists. Hanks had 14 goals and 21 assists last fall. She has 64 goals and 58 assists for her career.
Tobin Heath, midfielder, North Carolina. Heath, a junior, controls the midfield, and has enjoyed even more seasoning with the U.S. women's team in the Olympics. "I think if Tobin's interested, she can be a serious goal and assist threat," Dorrance said. "She absolutely has the talent."
Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at email@example.com.