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July 18, 2011

Creating future champions

A strong foundation is critical to Carolina remaining one of the elite overall athletic programs in the nation annually.

Such a foundation rests on the broad shoulders of the gifted athletes who wear the school's uniforms. What has made UNC's overall athletic program special is the consistency of excellence generated by so many different players and teams in the wide spectrum of sports in which the Tar Heels compete.

From basketball to field hockey to soccer to baseball -- and more -- the Tar Heels are annual contenders for championships at the conference and national levels.

Generating this kind of success demands an unrelenting pursuit of new players to replace those who pass through the cycle of college athletics.

As a group, UNC's coaches do this job of recruiting as well as any in the country.

But although 2010-11 saw Carolina's teams excel, the this was more of a year in which many teams refitted for the future. Even the men's basketball team, which finished first in the ACC regular-season standings and made it to the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament, was more about reestablishing itself as a national contender than its immediate accomplishments yielded.

The women's soccer team could say the same. Carolina went 19-3-2, an excellent year for most teams. The Tar Heels, however, failed to make the final of the ACC tournament for the first time ever and did not make the semifinals of the College Cup either. There was a good reason. Last season's team lost seven starters from the 2009 national championship team.

The future was secured with young players such as Crystal Dunn, a freshman who was named the ACC's defensive player of the year.

So when a new season begins on Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. at Nebraska, Carolina's will be set for a run at another NCAA championship, which would be the school's 21st in women's soccer.

The men's basketball team will face similar expectations to the 2009 team, which dominated the NCAA tournament on its way to the school's fifth national championship. When Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes all decided to return to Carolina rather than play professionally, UNC vaulted to the head of the nation in the chase for the 2012 national title.

Carolina will have a contender for the nation's best individual player in Barnes, the ACC's top point guard in Kendall Marshall and the leading shot-blocker in Henson. There is no big man in college basketball that runs the floor better than Zeller does.

The baseball team should be in a similar spot next February as third baseman Colin Moran, a first-team All-American as a freshman, and 2011 freshman All-American left-handed pitcher Kent Emanuel will form the cornerstone for a club with a realistic chance to make its six College World Series appearance in seven years.

If anything, this past season should help the fans who root for UNC to appreciate what 2011-12 may bring.

UNC's coaches do such a remarkable job of recruiting and directing their teams that even Carolina's rivals expect the Tar Heels to be one of the teams to beat every season.

So an occasional rebuilding season should remind all of us how well the school's athletes and coaches perform on a regular basis. As with so many things in life, people are easily spoiled when a wish granted becomes a seeming entitlement.

For the athletes, there is nothing magical about it. As they progress from high school to college, competition teaches that championships are won as much with the sweat during the off-season as with scoring and defense in games.

Hard work will not guarantee success, but the lack of a year-round work ethic will almost certainly diminish the chance for success at the collegiate level in this day and age.

Luckily for Tar Heel fans, plenty of young players learned these lessons this past year. So when success returns to the Carolina campus in 2011-12, it will not be a surprise so much as satisfaction earned from the effort in recruiting by the coaches and the work put in by the athletes.

This is the cycle behind all those championships the rest of us witness from a distance.


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