Chris Rich, awaiting word from Anson Dorrance, glanced at his phone and made an announcement.
“He’s coming,” Rich, a North Carolina men’s soccer assistant coach, said to the six other players warming up on the dark-green turf mat inside the Eddie Smith Field House. “Anson’s on his way.”
It was 11:19 a.m. on a gray Wednesday in April, and Dorrance, the UNC women’s soccer coach, who has won 21 national titles, had yet to arrive to Noon Ball – a thrice-weekly soccer scrimmage of Tar Heels coaches, former players and skilled locals that actually begins 45 minutes before noon to account for the daily practice of the men’s soccer team, at 2:30 p.m.
The games, held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, are informal but competitive. They are played at the field house, Hooker Fields or Finley Fields, depending on the weather and number of players. They have been a midday soccer staple for the last 10 years, said Rich, one of Noon Ball’s primary organizers.
On a makeshift pitch, using tables flipped on their sides as goals and large nets hanging from the ceiling as boundaries, the seven players split into two teams – one of four, which wore yellow jerseys, and another of three – and started the game without Dorrance. Soon began a series of crisp passes, clever combinations and shots that made the tables wobble.
Noon Ball apparently waits for no one, not even Dorrance, who once coached the Tar Heels to 92 consecutive victories and whom Rich called “the godfather of Noon Ball.”
‘What’s the score’
Five minutes later, Dorrance arrived, wearing a Carolina blue polo and navy athletic pants. He strolled onto the turf and began a series of dynamic stretches, carrying a white massage stick that he vigorously rubbed against his calves to loosen them.
“What’s the score?” Dorrance asked when he entered the game, stick still in hand, before angling himself with precision and casually sticking out his leg to block a shot by Jeff Favitta, a nimble winger who is a North Carolina law school student. Favitta played club soccer under Carlos Somoano, the Tar Heels’ men’s coach and a Noon Ball aficionado, who was injured and could not play in this game.
A few minutes later, Dorrance’s team scored. “Up three,” he said.
It was one of at least eight times Dorrance announced the score during the hourlong game. It was also one of several times Dorrance, 64, put his incisive soccer mind to use to compensate for his physical deficiencies. On his team were Rich; Grant Porter, an assistant men’s soccer coach; and Jake McDowell, a former Holy Cross standout – all younger, quicker players.
“I love the fact they let me play, because obviously at 64, it’s not like I’m running around, you know, dominating the game,” Dorrance said after the match, which his team won by a few goals. Strands of gray hair were matted to his forehead with sweat, and the front of his blue polo shirt was darkened by perspiration. “I survive on my wits,” he said.
Years ago, when Dorrance was the coach of both the men’s and women’s teams, he and three other coaches gave root to Noon Ball when they would meet at midday on Fetzer Field to play two-on-two tournaments.
‘Are you hurt?’
When Somoano arrived in Chapel Hill in 2011, Dorrance said, Noon Ball sessions increased in intensity and number – sometimes there are enough players for nine-versus-nine games. The games have attracted former Tar Heels stars such as Crystal Dunn, Cindy Parlow Cone and Heather O’Reilly, who all played under Dorrance and who all have caps for the United States women’s national team, as well as men’s professional players.
“When Heather’s out here, whenever I get the ball, because of all my limitations, she’s always screaming at everyone to press me and make sure I can’t get out,” Dorrance said, smiling. He described Noon Ball as “fun” at least 15 times during a 13-minute interview.
Less enjoyable is getting injured, which, Dorrance said, used to happen too often. After every game, when he returns to his normal duties, his staff asks him, he said, “Are you hurt?”
One of his teammates on his over-60 team bought him the massage stick, and the injuries have receded significantly. He carried it for the entire game, using it to direct his team and loosen his calves. Now, other players, including the former Tar Heels player Anson Ashby, have adopted the practice.
“This can also be called ‘stick ball,’” Favitta said. “Now that we have so many sticks out here.”
Toward the end of the game, Dorrance’s stick was an object of contention. Lars Van Dam, the UNC women’s club soccer coach, unleashed a shot that hit Dorrance’s stick and subsequently missed the table.
“Oh, that’s a goal,” Peter Matischak, a former Seton Hall player, said.
“No, it’s not,” Dorrance said, measuring the trajectory of the shot with his stick. His judgment prevailed.
A few seconds later, Matischak’s team scored. “I told you!” he yelled. “Justice!”
Dorrance retrieved the ball, and the game resumed.