We tend to forget about national championships won by teams other than football and men’s basketball. It is a shame, but it is the reality: The "big" two sports get the attention, the media coverage, and the fans. That's not to say there are not fans of the other sports, but when was the last time 90,000 people showed up to a softball game (that is definitely not meant as a knock on the Florida softball team, again just the reality)?
During my time at the University of Florida, the football team did not win any national championships; I arrived one year after the 1996 title. The men’s basketball team didn't bring home a national title banner, either, although I was there for the run to the final game against Michigan State. However, in 1998, a Florida team in only its fourth year of existence took home a national championship of its own in a sport where it could be considered much harder to do so because of the dominance of one program.
Before 1998, there had been 16 women’s soccer national championships. North Carolina won 14 of them. The two years in which the Anson Dorrance-led Tar Heels did not win the title, they still made it to the final game once and the final four the other time. Amazingly, from 1982 (when the first national championship game was played) until 2001, North Carolina only missed out on playing in the title game once. To say one team dominated the sport would be an understatement: to date, the title has been awarded 29 times, and the Tar Heels have taken home the trophy a stunning 20 times.
In 1998, though, a few things changed.
While North Carolina remained the sport's dominant powerhouse, other teams began to emerge. A Gators team from a program that had only been around for four years willed itself to the title game and took down the mighty Tar Heels. The Gators' rise to glory was quick and impressive and saw them play a brilliant game against the defending champs to claim the National Championship. To say North Carolina was knocked of its perch would be a lie; the Tar Heels are still very good. But after winning 14 of those first 16 titles, North Carolina has claimed "just" six of the last 13.
To say that Florida team was good would be another understatement. Despite being so early in the program’s history, the win was far from shocking. The Gators had three All-Americans – Erin Baxter, Danielle Fotopoulos, and Heather Mitts – and a freshman by the name of Abby Wambach.
Over the years, Florida has produced a number of players who have represented their countries in international competition, but perhaps the two that have made the most impact were on that title team. Both Mitts and Wambach have appeared in over 100 matches for the United States and both will represent the red, white, and blue again at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Mitts is best-known for her modeling and an on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again, that-resulted-in-their-2010-wedding relationship with NFL quarterback A.J. Feeley, although she really should not be. A star soccer player in her own right, Mitts has plenty of accomplishments to boast.
When she left Florida, Mitts was the all-time leader in games played, games started, and minutes played. She was a two-time All-American and, as mentioned, a national champion. Since leaving the Gators, Mitts has bounced around professional women’s leagues like most players as they have been created and folded and started the cycle all over again.
Mitts has participated in 115 matches for the U.S. Women's National Team, but has yet to appear in a World Cup match. She was a member of the teams that won the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medals, but a torn ACL kept her out of the 2007 World Cup. The injury occurred in a friendly against Canada only four months before the tournament, leaving Mitts to be merely a spectator.
Wambach – and this is said with any orange and blue glasses removed – is well on her way to becoming the greatest women’s soccer player the U.S. has ever seen. Although that may seem like high praise since the country has produced Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly among others, Wambach is already in that discussion, and has years to go.
At Florida, Wambach was a four-time All-SEC selection and twice named the conference’s player of the year. She was part of the only two Gators teams to reach the semifinals. Wambach is Florida’s all-time leading scorer as well as being the career-leader in assists, game-winning goals, and hat tricks.
Since becoming a mainstay on the U.S. roster, Wambach has skyrocketed her way up the all-time scoring list. Five U.S. women have scored 100 or more goals; Wambach was the fastest to reach the milestone. She currently sits third on the all-time list with 118. What is more amazing is the number of matches she has scored those goals in – 158. Wambach is currently 40 goals behind career leader Hamm, but has appeared in 121 fewer matches. Her 0.76 goals per game average can only be mentioned in the same sentence as Akers’s 0.69; none of the other three women with 100 or more career goals has a rate higher than 0.57. Barring injury, Wambach should become the all-time leader easily, too, given the fact that she will only turn 31 next month. She is also fast approaching the top of the list of the most-capped U.S. players as well. With a solid showing in the World Cup, Wambach will add to both totals.
The 2011 World Cup will be Wambach’s third. In each of her previous two appearances, the U.S. finished third. But that's not for lack of effort from Wambach: in the 2007 World Cup, she scored six goals in six matches. As the second most experienced player on the roster and by far the leading scorer (Heather O’Reilly is second with only 29 international goals), Wambach will be the leader in Germany as the U.S. tries to end the drought since the 1999 World Cup win.
The U.S. – with Mitts and Wambach – begins its quest for the World Cup as a member of Group C on June 28 against North Korea. Other group stage games will be on July 2 against Columbia and July 6 against Sweden. Not a bad way to bookmark Independence Day, by watching the U.S. women and two former Gators greats in the World Cup.