ConqueringHeroReturnsHome
from:  Eagle Tribune
Conquering hero Ducar returns home
Sunday, April 22, 2001
By Tim Bresnahan

No one doubted that Tracy Noonan Ducar had a sharp mind, but her decision to turn down both Harvard and Dartmouth and try to walk on to the powerhouse University of North Carolina soccer team instead inevitably raised some eyebrows.

"It was definitely a risk," she says. "I know my other classmates were mad at me for not going to Harvard or Dartmouth. I think my guidance counselors thought I was crazy, too."

Nonetheless, she felt she needed the daunting challenge that awaited her at UNC. So she left North Andover in 1991, bypassed any and all things Ivy and headed straight for Tobacco Road and an uncertain role -- if any -- with the most dominant women's soccer program ever.

Ten years later, it's clear she made the right choice. A national champion, All-American goalkeeper and Phi Beta Kappa student at North Carolina, Ducar went on to become a World Cup champion and world traveler with the U.S. National Team. And now, her remarkable soccer journey brings her home, as a professional athlete playing for the Boston Breakers of the new Women's United Soccer Association.

"She wanted the challenge and she went on and met it," says her North Andover High School coach Kevin "Bud" McCarthy. "She really made the most of that opportunity. She deserves a lot of credit."

Home again

When the WUSA formed last February, Ducar was one of 20 "founding players" -- all U.S. National Team mainstays -- allocated among eight teams. She requested to go Boston, and the league obliged. She and college draftee Sarah Powell of Natick are the only Massachusetts natives on the roster.

To come home, Ducar had to uproot herself temporarily from her newer home in North Carolina, where she and her husband Chris (an assistant coach at UNC) have lived for several years. They run camps, clinics and private teaching sessions, and Ducar also has done some assistant coaching at UNC-Greensboro. But the opportunity to play in Boston for the summer was hard to pass up.

"I'm very happy to be here," says Ducar, who's living in Wellesley. "Usually when I come back it's for a couple of days at best.

"I didn't know when I'd come back," she says. "It wasn't anything where I said, 'I will be back in five years. I go with the flow -- wherever my job and activities in life take me. There are so many great places in this country. Right now, I'm very happy in North Carolina with my husband, but I could easily see myself moving back to New England. I really miss New England in general, the style of houses, the people, the character. It's fun to be back."

Local players and fans undoubtedly share that sentiment. The area's most accomplished soccer star has had precious few opportunities to play in front of a hometown crowd. She took the Foxboro Stadium pitch with the national team twice, in 1998 and 1999, but otherwise, fans have mainly had to follow her career from afar.

Until now. The Breakers will play 11 home games at Boston University's Nickerson Field, with the first one coming Saturday, May 5.

"Where we're playing at BU is fantastic," Ducar says. "It's a nice intimate environment (capacity is 11,000). Being the first women's (pro) sport in this city is going to make a difference. I know we'll be successful."

She certainly has a built-in fan base in her hometown.

When Ducar returned to Foxboro in 1999 for the national team's first match after the World Cup triumph, McCarthy took his Scarlet Knights team to the game to watch her play. After the match, she joined the high school girls in the stands while the Revolution played the nightcap of a doubleheader.

"It hit me then how much these kids look up to her -- their eyes were as wide as saucers," recalls McCarthy. "It was like Ted Williams coming into the stands and sitting with me. They were just in awe. I don't think girls have had that experience before.

"All of a sudden she was there for them. It means so much for kids in town."

Ducar, who has talked to McCarthy about possible appearances (such as soccer clinics and speaking engagements) in town, realizes the importance of her presence as a local girl made good.

"It's nice to feel (kids) might connect to me better being from Massachusetts, (thinking) 'She's from our town. I can do this.' It makes it more realistic for them," she says. "Sometimes I forget how much impact you have."

Always a battler

In a sense, though, it's tough to imagine Ducar's story not having an impact on an aspiring youth athlete. The road from the Merrimack Valley to a world title and pro career -- in any sport -- has never been a well-traveled one. But Ducar has overcome all the obstacles to complete that journey.

In high school, she was injured playing basketball and required surgery in which two vertebrae were fused together. She missed her junior season of soccer while recovering, and McCarthy wasn't sure she'd be able to play again. Ducar proceeded to lead the Scarlet Knights to a Cape Ann League title and earned All-New England honors for herself.

Yet while her high school resume certainly glittered, it didn't quite seem to be North Carolina-caliber.

"I always saw her as the hardest working player I've ever had. But that was at the North Andover level. Now we're talking the best program in the country," says McCarthy. "I said to her, 'You know, if you go to UNC, there's no guarantee that you'll be playing. If you go to Dartmouth, you are going to be one of the stars on that campus.' Her response to that was she didn't think she was going to be challenged as much as she wanted to be."

Injury sidelined her as a freshman, but over the next two years, she battled tooth and nail to earn playing time. And she expected the same tenacity from her teammates.

Breakers forward and UNC product Robin Confer recalls that, in the first practice she ever had at Carolina, she and the junior Ducar were teamed up in a 2-on-2 drill. The freshman Confer, worn out by the intensity, began to slow down.

"I remember Tracy screaming, 'You're going to make me lose if you don't move!' It hit me -- I really had to step it up on the field," says Confer. "It was an eye-opener."

"There's a degree of stubbornness on her part," adds her father, Richard Noonan, who still lives in North Andover. "She had a great deal of self-motivation. She realized that if she wanted to be the starter, it was her responsibility."

She entered her junior year (1994) as the backup to Shelley Finger -- a first-team high school All-American now starting for the eight-time defending national champion Tar Heels. Before the regular season was over, Ducar was splitting time with Finger. By the NCAA tournament, she'd won the job.

Ducar recorded shutouts in the semifinal and the championship game, leading North Carolina to another NCAA title. She'd post 23 shutouts in 1995, as the Tar Heels went unbeaten in the regular season before Notre Dame upset them in the national semifinal.

Despite that loss, she was named a first-team All-American in 1995, earned team MVP honors and was a finalist for the Missouri Athletic Club's prestigious Player of the Year Award. In her five years at UNC, the Tar Heels won four national titles -- and 123 out of 126 matches. Her teammates included Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly (now a Breaker), Tisha Venturini and Cindy Parlow, all of whom became national team luminaries.

Not bad for a Cape Ann League kid.

"It was special," Ducar says of her experiences in Chapel Hill. "When you're in (the program), you don't think of tradition or national championships. You're just pushing to get better. It's not until you get out that you say, 'Wow, we really did a lot.' "

About five years ago, McCarthy attended a coaching clinic in New York where legendary UNC coach Anson Dorrance spoke. "He mentioned," McCarthy says, "that she was the hardest working player he ever had."

Patriotic duty

Her stellar play not only impressed Dorrance, but the U.S. National Team coaching staff as well. As her December 1995 graduation approached, Ducar, a biology major, began preparing to apply to graduate schools for physical therapy. But she put the applications on hold and joined the American squad in 1996.

"It wasn't until late in my career at Carolina that I felt I had aspirations to play for the national team," she says. "I just got lucky that I was brought in. (I said,) 'OK, I'll keep playing soccer until I can't physically do it or I get cut.' "

Ducar never was the No. 1 keeper for coach Tony DiCicco's team, but over four seasons, she did play in 25 games and on five continents. The whirlwind world tour culminated with the 1999 World Cup, where the Americans played to packed crowds in NFL stadiums, drew surprisingly high TV ratings and inspired an outpouring of support and affection that no American women's sports team had ever known.

"I think we as a team have always believed in ourselves," says Ducar. "We believed we could fill those stadiums. We were convinced we had entertainment value and could be financially profitable."

Once the post-Cup publicity blitz subsided, though, Ducar's national team star faded. DiCicco stepped down, and successor April Heinrichs didn't call Ducar into training camp at the beginning of 2000. A younger UNC product, Siri Mullinix, had emerged as a potential starter, and only two keepers would make the Olympic team (as opposed to three for the World Cup). Ducar wasn't one of them.

"Of course I was frustrated and upset from being dropped from the national team," she says, "but it was good for me to get away."

Ducar essentially took a year off from competitive soccer, focusing on her coaching duties, recovering physically and mentally from national team duty and enjoying a quiet life in North Carolina after so much time on the road.

"It was nice to be normal, and it was nice to see my husband on a regular basis," says Ducar, who was finally able to take a snowboarding honeymoon with Chris in Whistler, B.C. -- three and a half years after their wedding.

But at 27, she should be in the prime of her goalkeeping career, so the WUSA has come along at a perfect time. Ducar, who hasn't played for a club team since the 1999 season with the Raleigh Wings of the semi-pro W-League, is ready to return to the pitch.

"I just want to be back playing games," she says. "That's what I want to get back to -- contributing (to a team)."

Always dedicated to her fitness, Ducar hasn't had trouble preparing herself physically for the WUSA season, but her decision making and tactical awareness still need improvement, she says. She'll have to regain her top form pretty quickly, though, because backup Karina LeBlanc is a highly capable keeper who plays for the Canadian National Team.

"She's a great training partner," says Ducar of LeBlanc. "I definitely can't slack off."

That hardly seems likely, according to her new head coach.

"She's a player who's professional, comes to train every day and works extremely hard," says Jay Hoffman, an assistant coach on the 1999 World Cup team. "You've got to like that. She brings a level to the training field that's a little bit infectious.

"We were fortunate to have a goalkeeper of her quality come to us as a founding player."

Learned so much

And so, the young woman who turned down the Ivies has returned home with the kind of education she couldn't have gotten at Dartmouth.

"I've learned a lot from the game," says Ducar. "It's a great teacher for life in general -- how hard work, sacrifice, dedication, commitment, all those attributes correspond for life. I've learned so much about preparing myself physically -- training, lifting, eating properly, staying away from drugs and alcohol. You hear about them all the time, but they really make a difference."

All that preparation, in turn, has led to her to the fulfillment of a wish her father says she expressed in her grammar school days: to play professional soccer.

"I'm playing and it's what I love to do, so for me, (this accomplishment) doesn't seem like it's hard. For me, it doesn't seem as big a jump as it seems from the outside," she says. "Now that I finally have the opportunity to get paid for it and make a living doing what I love ... it's a dream come true."
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