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Nov 30, 2006

Cheney should have been a Hermann contender

The Hermann Trophy list for the top female college soccer player in the nation is down to the final three candidates, with the winner to be named and honored this weekend as part of the festivities for the College Cup.

Back when the first list of 15 players to be considered was announced, however, there was one name that was notable for its absence. The omission is even more glaring now when the last three to be deemed worthy of the prestigious recognition are assessed alongside her accomplishments.

Notre Dame's Kerri Hanks and the North Carolina duo of Yael Averbuch and Heather O'Reilly are certainly accomplished players who have all performed especially well this year. If one is to measure the merits, though, there's a case to be made for a solid contender who has been entirely overlooked in the race.

UCLA freshman Lauren Cheney not only has more goals (19) than either O'Reilly (10) or Averbuch (16) but also has them in fewer games. The Bruins' forward has played in only 20 matches, as opposed to 26 for Averbuch and 25 for O'Reilly.

Cheney thus owns a goals-per-game percentage of .95, which bests that of Hanks (.88), even though the South Bend sophomore owns a gaudier goal total of 22 goals in 25 games.

The numbers also indicate that Cheney is efficient with her opportunities. Comparing shooting percentages puts Cheney at the head of the class again, as her .202 tops the other three.

Another statistic is also a telling one: Cheney beats all the Hermann finalists in game-winning goals (she has eight) -- though, again, she has played in at least five fewer games than any of the others.

Of course, stats are only part of the story.

They don't explain, for example, that Cheney missed the first four games of UCLA's season because she was playing for the U.S. in the Under-20 Women's World Cup in Russia.

There's no caveat detailing that Cheney's first year wasn't supposed to be like this. She was to be a golden-child understudy to the likes of Kara Lang and Danesha Adams, free to develop and grow without too much pressure, mentored by the established stars on the UCLA roster.

That's the scenario that other talented freshmen have in college soccer, namely Tobin Heath, Whitney Engen and Casey Nogueira, who play alongside O'Reilly and Averbuch. The Tar Heels' veterans shoulder the majority of the responsibility and expectations for their squad, leaving the youngsters to contribute as they can.

Yet UCLA didn't have that luxury after Lang suffered an ACL injury in the summer and was out for the season before it even began. Then team co-captain Mary Castelanelli sustained a season-ending knee injury nine games into the season, depriving the squad of even more on-field leadership.

Danesha Adams, meanwhile, who was the only UCLA player to be named to the first Hermann list this year, was multitasking her college duties with her first call-up to the U.S. national team. This caused her to miss games with the Bruins, increasing the scoring burden on Cheney.

The young freshmen was up to the task time and again, leading her team in goals and coming through in the clutch for the Bruins as they clinched another Pac-10 title and secured home-field advantage for the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Along the way, Cheney set a UCLA record for most goals by a freshmen, beating the tally of Lang (17 goals) set only last year.

In all probability, part of the reason Cheney was passed over for Hermann trophy consideration lies in her freshman status. The voting members, comprised of Division I college soccer coaches, have traditionally been loath to reward players so young, preferring instead to look at a longer record of accomplishment.

It makes the stated premise of the award something of a misnomer, though, since the Hermann trophy is supposed to highlight the best soccer player for that year. It's not meant to be the recompense for someone's collegiate playing career, no matter how impressive.

It's not as if freshmen haven't cracked the Hermann list before. Only last year, Hanks was on the semifinal list. At 20 years of age when she was named, Hanks was older than the average freshman, but the recent precedent still stands as far as class status (Hanks missed the 2004 season to play for the U.S. U-19 team in the World Championship).

Though Cheney was widely heralded as the top recruit in the nation out of high school, missing the first part of this season while with the U-20 national team could have cost her some early "hey, look at me" points. After all, Hanks went on a scoring tear at the start of last season that likely boosted her profile among Hermann voters.

On the other hand, Cheney's teammate Adams was also absent from college games for the same tournament, yet made that first Hermann list this year.

The entire process could have been affected by something having nothing to do with college play. Simply put, Adams had a better U-20 tournament in Russia than Cheney did. Cheney never got on the scoreboard and had a penalty kick saved that would have advanced the U.S. squad to the final. Frankly, that impression may have tainted potential votes that might have otherwise gone her way, even though Cheney's play has been stellar since the college season began.

The player snubbed by the Hermann award now has her eye on a more important prize. That's partly what was on Cheney's mind when she stepped up to the penalty spot again in a crucial moment. This time it was the NCAA quarterfinals, against the team, Portland, that had humiliated UCLA with a 4-0 win in the final only last year. Cheney wasn't with the team then, of course, but she knew what this game meant to those who were.

"You just know, seeing their faces, how bad they wanted it," Cheney said. "It rubs off."

With the score tied at 1-1 and the outcome in the balance, the 19-year-old knew her squad's hopes rested on her when a penalty kick was granted late in the match. Adams was on the sideline. UCLA coach Jill Ellis had entrusted the backup spot-kick duties to Cheney.

The forward did what she has done all season long. She came through for her team, calmly putting away the penalty to send the Bruins to the College Cup for a third straight year.

"What I was most proud of was our composure," Cheney said after the comeback win.

The road to the College Cup this year hasn't been as smooth as it was in 2005, when the Bruins shut out every team they faced until the final. Yet this UCLA squad could be tougher than the previous edition.

"I think it's a little bit more of a character-building journey for them," Ellis said.

That trip has been led by Cheney, who ironically could play against the same players she wasn't given the chance to compete against for the Hermann award. UCLA takes on North Carolina in the College Cup semifinal. If the Bruins win, they could confront Notre Dame in the final.

It's not an easy task, but Cheney and her cohorts are ready.

"I don't think we ever give up, which is definitely a compliment to our team," Cheney said.

If Cheney is standing triumphant at the end with UCLA's first title, that victory will be worth far more than any crystal ball.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.