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May 10, 2008

Staples-Bryan back in the mix after hiatus

Don't try guarding Thori Staples-Bryan in a pickup basketball game. She'll turn a friendly game of roundball into a death match.

Don't be the runner 20, 30 or 40 yards ahead of Staples-Bryan on the loop at her local park. She'll lap the unsuspecting strider, over and over again, feeling a rush each time.

Don't dare Staples-Bryan to play a game of Monopoly. She'll risk all her play money, buying everything from Oriental Avenue to Park Place, just for the rise of watching her opponent land on a property with four houses and a hotel on it.

Uh, yes, Thori Staples-Bryan is a competitor.

That's why after a 4½-year layoff, the birth of her first child and one destroyed Monopoly board (more on that later), Staples-Bryan is back on the pitch, competing against college kids, with the Carolina RailHawks.

Go ahead, call it a comeback, but Staples-Bryan, who turned 34 on April 17, could be in the best shape of her life.

And if you think Staples-Bryan busts it during a playground basketball game, or a run at the park, well, the W-League better watch out.

"I don't think you ever lose your competitive edge," Staples-Bryan said. "It never really goes away. Once I get on the field, I'm going to give everything I have, physically and emotionally. There is no in-between. I always go full throttle."

Staples-Bryan, who made a name for herself as a hard-charging defender at NC State in the early 1990s and went on to play with the U.S. women's national team for almost a decade, last played professionally in 2003 with the San Jose CyberRays of the now-defunct Women's United Soccer Association.

When the league folded in September of that year after three seasons, a disappointed Staples-Bryan wasn't sure what she would do. It didn't take long for her to figure it out. Staples-Bryan gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, Kameron, on June 9, 2005. With no league to play in and Kameron to take care of, Staples-Bryan says it was easy to walk away from the game still calling for her.

Come on, do you expect us to believe that?

Staples-Bryan's husband, Kip Staples, says it ate at her every single day. Don't get the wrong idea: Staples-Bryan loves Kameron. But pickup soccer games with the boys didn't feed her need for all-out competition.

"Honestly, it was a rough transition," Kip says. "It was hard for her. She was just bored without [competitive] soccer, she was going nuts. Thori was looking for a thrill to drive her every day."

Kip, married to Staples-Bryan for almost 10 years, knows about her determination. They have been competing for, well, almost 10 years. During one of their recent workouts, the couple ran 50-yard suicide sprints at a park near their home in Wake Forest, N.C.

Of course, Staples-Bryan pulled a Michael Johnson, trying to blow the doors off her husband.

"I told her to slow down," says Kip, a businessman. "But Thori took it to the limit. I love to watch it. It just drives you."

Then there are the intense Staples family Monopoly games. The couple hasn't played since the last board was torn in half. Kip isn't saying who trashed it, but here's a hint: It wasn't him.

Some family members bought them a new Monopoly game this past Christmas. It still hasn't been opened.

Staples-Bryan says her competitive fire was borne while growing up in Joppatowne, Md. She was a tomboy, mixing it up with bigger, older boys, coming home full of mud and grass stains. Back home, Staples-Bryan developed her toughness.

She became a lights-out defender at NC State, always attacking, winning balls, making plays up and down the field.

"Thori was very inspiring," says Monica Hall, one of Staples-Bryan's former N.C. State teammates. "She always pushed herself so hard. Off the field, she was the kindest, nicest person you knew. She had a lot of fun, but on the field, it was all business."

Staples-Bryan went on to earn 64 caps with the U.S. women's national team from 1993 to 2003. And no matter who the red, white and blue played through those years, Mia Hamm remembers Staples-Bryan as the fastest player on the field. The one who jumped the highest, soaring through the box, serving dangerous balls back across the field. What else does Hamm remember about Bryan?

"I remember that Thori hated to lose," Hamm says. "She took so much pride in herself and her team that she took every result personally. I loved having that intensity on the field. It was very impressive to her teammates."

The RailHawks will have that intensity on the field thanks, in part, to Hall. A Carolina assistant, Hall dropped Staples-Bryan's name to head coach Jay Howell when they began putting together the team in December.

"Thori is the whole package," he says. "She's possibly, possibly the best to ever play at N.C. State. Thori is an ACC legend, she's still in great shape, I think it's a great fit for everyone."

Staples-Bryan says she's in national team shape for the start of the W-League season. Maybe it's her new workout partner: Kameron. Staples-Bryan, who last played in the W-League for Raleigh in 2000, uses him as a weight on her back for push-ups and other exercises. Now that Kameron is older and the fact that the RailHawks' home in Cary is only 40 minutes away, it makes it easier for a mom to play in the pros.

Staples-Bryan has thought about making a run at the new Women's Professional Soccer league.

For now, she is getting ready for her return run. Staples-Bryan will likely stay home for a few long Carolina road trips because of family obligations. Still, she will be around for most games and W-League opponents should take notice. Staples-Bryan can't wait to get after it on the pitch.

Note: The Carolina RailHawks play host to the 2007 W-League finalist Atlanta Silverbacks Friday May 16 at 7:30 pm ET. The game can be seen on USL's broadband broadcast site USLlive.com.

Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at jrod_showtime@yahoo.com.

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