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Jan 11, 2005

O'Rourke and Sinclair worthy winners

There was a sharp contrast in the announcements of the men's and women's Hermann Trophy award last Friday by the Missouri Athletic Club (M.A.C.). To almost no one's surprise, Danny O'Rourke of Indiana won the men's award. In what probably constitutes a minor upset, Christine Sinclair of Portland beat out better-known Olympian Heather O'Reilly to take home the women's award.

However, while there may have been a discrepancy in expectations, there's no denying the two share similar levels of excellence on and off the field.

O'Rourke of course is the marquee name and it's doubtful that anyone in attendance thought that he wouldn't win. He's a likely lock as a top-ten pick in Friday's MLS draft, and displayed strong leadership skills throughout his career. Under his captaincy, the Hoosiers won back-to-back national championships.

"He's the epitome of a great IU player…he's got the heart of a lion and was a great leader for us. He deserves any accolades he gets," first-year IU head coach Mike Freitag told me shortly after the winners were announced.

Ditto for the winningest coach in Division I soccer history, Freitag's mentor and former coach, Jerry Yeagley. "I've known Danny since he was a freshman in high-school. He's a special player."

The thing that separates O'Rourke from his peers though, isn't his defensive prowess or his uncanny ability to win the ball, it's actually his head.

As Freitag said, "Danny's smart. He was named the NSCAA Scholar Athlete of the year, but when Danny came to IU, he didn't have the right mindset…we had to work with him a lot because he thought the mark of a good player was doing everything. Once we settled him down and got him to concentrate on his primary role, we knew he was going to be special"

Watching Danny O'Rourke play is like watching a midfielder enforcer along the lines of Liverpool's Steven Gerrard or Manchester United's Roy Keane. He's instinctive like them and knows when to stay back and when to help out the attack. When you watch these three play, their heart and will to win really stands out. O'Rourke played through immense pain in the College Cup final this year. He was injured towards the end of the game and the agony on his face was evident, yet he still led his team, albeit from the sidelines.

For the women's award, there was considerably more speculation as to who would win. The choice of Portland's Sinclair surprised those in attendance who were leaning towards North Carolina's Heather O'Reilly. And why not? She was the youngest player to be chosen for the U.S. Olympic team in Athens, and scored one of the most important goals in U.S. women's national team history during overtime of the semifinal match against Germany.

She was also picked to play on the 2003 Women's World Cup team but unfortunately broke her leg weeks before the tournament. She's fast, quick with the ball at her feet, and is being schooled where most of the great players of the national team were taught the art of winning, North Carolina.

Sinclair, as it turns out though wasn't a bad choice. 22 goals to O'Reilly's thirteen. Fourth in points nationally, and tied for third in goals. Oh, it turns out she's an international herself. In that country north of our border, she's the heart and soul of the national team.

Sinclair's a big target. She's strong and sneaky fast. She closes other players down effectively and can run all day.

Like O'Rourke, she's a smart player, garnering two Academic All-American selections while at Portland. Ian Bridge, Canada's U-19 head coach told reporters, "even with two players marking her, she just seems to be able to slot the ball to the correct player…She's the Michael Owen of women's football. She has the potential to be the greatest player this country has ever produced."

Go ahead and laugh at that last comment, but it's not an exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination. How many players do you know, male or female, that have scored 32 goals in 40 international games, and all before the age of 21? Not Michael Owen. Not Henry. Not Van Nistlerooy. Not even Ronaldo.

You don't have to be a fortune-teller to know that these two kids are special players who play because they love the game. When asked where they go from here, Sinclair matter-of-factly said, "back to class on Monday at Portland." O'Rourke, sporting a rockstar mohawk, said "to L.A. for the MLS Combine and then the draft on Friday."

O'Rourke is almost certain to be drafted high next week and Sinclair still has another year of eligibility at Portland and will be heavily involved in Canada's World Cup qualifiers over the next two years. One thing is easily discernable after talking with these two champions; they will be major successes wherever it is they go after college.

Mike Stoll covers college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: collegekicks@hotmail.com