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Sunday, June 4, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: July 23, 2:54 PM UK
True to her roots

Corina Knoll

Christina DiMartino may have swapped her much-loved four seasons for the eternal California sun and given up on ever finding a good slice of pizza in Los Angeles, but she'll never relinquish that New Yawk accent.

It's been more than a year since the 19-year-old from Long Island decided to cross coasts and play soccer for UCLA, and while her bronzed skin helps her blend in, there's no mistaking where she came from.

"Everyone's like, 'Can you say this ... ?'" says DiMartino of some of her new teammates who love asking her to pronounce things, starting with the white sphere they play with. That would be, of course, a "bawl."

No matter the intonation, it's all the same language, and DiMartino comes across crystal clear when she's on the pitch. As a midfielder with devastating ball skills that earned her the title of 2004 NSCAA/adidas National High School Player of the Year, she schooled opponents twice her size while playing for Massapequa High School and her club team, Albertson Express. Which is why UCLA coach Jill Ellis flew out to meet DiMartino last year and convince one of the top recruits to head west.

"I don't think right now there's a player like her," says Ellis. "She's a ton of fun to watch. She just can break down defenders -- she's fantastic. She's small, but she plays so big."

As a freshman for the Bruins, the petite DiMartino played in all 26 games and finished the season with five goals and five assists. She was also instrumental to her team's success at the NCAA tournament, cracking in two goals in the semifinal game. Although UCLA was shut out by Portland in the finals, DiMartino says the experience was the highlight of her career.

"[There's] a lot of pressure on you, you have the cameras all over you, watching every second, but once you get going the jitters are out and it's a great environment to play in. I would love to do it again."

It's probable that she'll get that chance, but for now she's concentrating on preparing for the U-20 FIFA women's World Championship that kicks off on Aug. 17 in Russia. Head coach Tim Schulz says he's got a solid squad to take to the tournament and singles out DiMartino as being one of the most improved.

"These past four months, from January till now, she has absolutely blossomed," he says. "One of the best one vs. one players bar none. She is clever, quick, crafty -- she's got a real swagger to her walk right now and is confident in her play."

Some of that self-assurance might be the result of having made it through her first two college trimesters -- a difficult feat for young athletes who must suddenly take notes in lecture halls and up their level of play on the field.

"It was pretty difficult," says DiMartino. "I had some late nighters, but I got through." Schulz adds that there are even larger factors for freshmen. "You got school in there, you got social life, boyfriends," he says. "They're just becoming young adults, stepping away from their mom and dad, getting out of the house. So it's just a tremendous change in their life."

DiMartino calls her college experience so far "perfect," and especially enjoyed her intro classes on sociology and history. Earning A's and B's, she took off the last trimester due to U-20 team practices, giving her even less time to hone in on a major. "I have no idea. My parents always get mad at me, but I'm looking around."

Those parents have actually been pleased with the way their eldest daughter has handled living by herself and juggling academics and games. "She's a little more mature," says her father, Daniel. "You can see the change from just her being alone and being on her own."

Daniel, 50, was once a college athlete as well, having played basketball for Farmingdale State, and for a while it looked like Christina would head in the same direction. "At third grade they kind of play everything, so she started with soccer and basketball and she played both of them for a while," he remembers. "She was, I thought, a better basketball player. But then I'm looking at her and I said, 'Listen teens, you take after Grandma -- you ain't growing -- the Italians are real small on that side.'"

When the focus became soccer, Christina found her niche.

"She was one of those people like if she played a game she just stood out whether you knew her or not," says Daniel. "Deep down I thought she was special, but I'm more low-key, I try not to think your kid's better than they are."

It's the kind of hesitation that comes from having five children, and not wanting to get overzealous about one particular talent. Especially when the other daughters also possess finesse on the field: Gina, 17, will play for Boston College starting this fall, Victoria, 15, plays for the U-16 national team and Rosie, 11, plays for a club team. That can make for some competitive backyard games, although it's a welcome detail in a family that loves homemade dinners around the table and fierce games of scrabble.

"I love being home with my family," says DiMartino. "My house, when we were younger, was the house where all the kids would come play kickball and basketball in the street, and my mom would have lemonade and water for everyone."

And DiMartino credits her upbringing for giving her a work ethic that has made her the player she is today. "You have to keep working hard and be consistent, knowing that at any moment someone could take your position," she says. "You have to be self-motivated and love the game."

That mentality was bred after watching her father who is a captain for the Fire Department of New York (where her 21-year-old brother, Daniel, also works) come home from long shifts and even take on a second job to pay the bills, while her mother, Patti, managed a lively household.

So even though DiMartino admitted after a recent U-20 practice at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. that the West Coast has started to sink in and she likes wearing flip-flops every day and being near the beach, she still looks forward to being able to spend time back east during her breaks with the national team. And it sounds like she's not the only one.

"She's an excellent cook," says Daniel. "She makes the best pancakes from scratch. They're waiting for her to come back so she can make them."

Pretty soon, that accent will feel right at home.

Corina Knoll is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She can be reached at corinaknoll@mac.com.


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