Sunday, September 30, 2012

LInda Hamilton and North Florida Ready for More Success

There are only a couple of things that Linda Hamilton hasn’t achieved in her exceptional career as a player, ambassador for and coach of women’s soccer.

One was to win an Olympic medal. Hamilton has medals as a member of World Cup teams for Team USA, has been inducted into soccer halls of fame, has been an ambassador overseas for women’s soccer and has taken countless opportunities to grow and teach the game of soccer with young women as their coach. But she wasn’t able to play long enough to see her Olympic dream come true.

“I would love to have an Olympic medal, but I guess I was just a bit ahead of our time. But I certainly don’t live from regret at all,” says Hamilton. “I wouldn’t give back the gold or the bronze medals from the World Cup, and to have accomplished all that I have I am certainly blessed.”

Hamilton’s career accomplishments are impressive. She spent fall 2006 as an assistant women's soccer coach at Hofstra University in New York and previously served as head coach at Old Dominion University in Virginia from 1993-95. She was also head coach and director of player development for the Richmond (Va.) Strikers Soccer Club from 1997-2006.

She also knows something about success on the field, having played at the highest levels of competitive soccer - both in college and internationally. Hamilton's impressive playing career includes an eight-year stint on the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team from 1987-95 as a defender and marking back, when she appeared in 82 international games. She was a starter for two World Cup teams that earned medals - the 1991 gold-medal squad and the 1995 bronze-medal team.

While playing for the U.S. National team, Hamilton capped her collegiate career in 1990 as a member of the University of North Carolina squad that won the fifth of nine consecutive NCAA titles. She spent the first three years of her college career at N.C. State before transferring to play for the Tar Heels. Hamilton was a four-time All-American, four-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and was runner-up for the national player of the year in each of her final three collegiate seasons. She was also named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in 1988 while playing for N.C. State.

Now for Hamilton, her other unachieved goal is a pressing one – the development of her North Florida Ospreys into an A-Sun Championship team. When North Florida brought her on board in February of 2007, one of Hamilton’s main goals was to propel the program into the hunt for its first A-Sun Championship.

In her fifth season with North Florida, she has her team playing well and in the hunt for a place in the 2012 A-Sun Championship, tied for second with the cross-town rival Dolphins at 2-0-1 with seven points and just two behind A-Sun leader Florida Gulf Coast.

The Ospreys’ matchup with Jacksonville Friday night was an opportunity to stay ahead of the pack in the conference race and keep the pressure on defending champion FGCU, and for 83 minutes they did just that. But a game-tying goal by JU in the 83rd minute evened the match at 1-1, and after two overtime periods JU and UNF remained tied in the A-Sun standings.

“I love the rivalry with Jacksonville, it is fun to have a matchup like this in the same city. Typically we have this game at the end of the year, not at the beginning, but hopefully we can continue to establish something early and continue to build on it.”

So while it wasn’t a win Friday evening for North Florida, the tie provided a valuable point and another step in the right direction for the program. North Florida entered the season looking to erase the memory of coming close last season before falling to defending champion FGCU 2-1 in the 2011 A-Sun Championship semifinals.

“This is a difficult sport in which to have instant success,” says Hamilton. “We knew that our first couple of years would be spent getting a feel for everything. We were close last year, and just experienced a tragic end to the season,” Hamilton continues. “They can still taste that loss to FGCU, and they are playing like they are on a mission this year because of it this season.”

North Florida is the A-Sun leader in shots, averaging 20.67 per game. The Ospreys are also among the top three teams in the conference in points (6.67/game), goals (2.33/game), assists (2.00/game), and corners (7.67/game). Carolina Lencina is among the A-Sun leaders in shots (4.67/game), goals (0.67/game) and teammates Thea Linkfield and Lauren Hopfensperger are first (1.00/game) and third (0.67/game) in assists, respectively.

“We are off to a good start, but of course the most important thing right now is getting enough points to get into the A-Sun Championship. The JU game was certainly a valuable one, but it was not the whole season. We have seven games left, and each one is a chance to get three points.”

The Ospreys have already played in four overtime or double overtime games this season, and have battled back in two of the last three games from behind for wins. UNF has also faced tough non-conference competition in the form of No. 6 UCF and Clemson. Hamilton appreciates the spirit of this team, one that never quits, and relies on a close-knit group of six seniors to lead a team that in many respects has taken on the personality of its coach.

“We have faced adversity already this year, but our kids are finding a way to battle,” says Hamilton. “For me it is very important in every game to put them in a position to be competitive. This team never gives up. It is not about mistakes, it is about how you react to those mistakes. It takes hard work to win championships. The big question is ‘what are you willing to do – to be a teammate, to fill a role, to do whatever it takes.

“Because of that spirit, I am seeing a lot of maturity from this team,” says Hamilton. “This is a great senior class that has really come through. It is my first class that we’ve had for all four years, and that is special because they are the ones that bought in at first, choosing here to come and build something.”

Hamilton’s experience at all levels of the game provides her a unique opportunity to understand, relate to and communicate valuable insight to her team in a way that many coaches cannot.

“I think one of the things that comes with my experience and with what I have been able to accomplish in the sport is that I can have tough conversations with my team, because they can relate to me,” she says.

Her approach is also one that seeks and fosters a tremendous unity, a closeness that transcends the wins and losses. She believes that is an integral component to her team’s success.

“One thing that I took away from my all of my experiences and that I want this team to do as well is to take away great memories. I want this team to be like many that I was on in my career, one that is an environment that feels like family. This team is like that, they are close.”

The Ospreys remain at home for the next two matches, the next against A-Sun leader FGCU on Oct. 5. Hamilton has her team battling, playing with the grit and tenacity that she typified during her legendary career. And she likes it.

“I would hope that this team is viewed like I was as a player – hard working, blue collar, and dangerous at any moment.”

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