December 9, 2001

Santa Clara's Zepeda may go without cleats in championship

Dec. 9, 2001

By Rick Alonzo
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS, Texas - Tennis shoes and soccer generally don't mix.

But with the national championship on the line, there's no holding back.

Santa Clara's Veronica Zepeda, one of the best players in the nation, may be forced to wear tennis shoes in Sunday's College Cup women's soccer championship match against North Carolina at Ford Stadium.

Zepeda, who scored the game-winning goal against Florida in the semifinals Friday, has been battling shin splints, a debilitating overuse injury that causes severe pain to shoot through her lower legs with every stride. The extra cushioning in tennis shoes ideally would lessen the pain.

The sophomore midfielder hasn't trained in two weeks because of the severity of the injury. "Her shin splints are so bad that we don't even have her go in the warm up," Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith said. "Pain will be the guide of how long she's able to go [Sunday] and whether she will start."

Trying to limit Zepeda's minutes, Smith had her come off the bench against Florida. For the first time in this year's NCAA tournament, she played more than 30 minutes in a match. She scored two goals.

For Santa Clara (22-2) to topple North Carolina, the Broncos will need Zepeda, and all of her teammates, to play in top form.

The Tar Heels (24-0) have won 17 of 20 national championships, including the last two. Santa Clara has reached the College Cup semifinals eight times but needed Zepeda's goal four minutes into overtime to salvage a 3-2 win over Florida. Santa Clara had almost blown a two-goal lead.

In the other semifinal Friday, North Carolina improved to 71-3 all-time in NCAA tournament play with its 2-1 win over Portland.

"Anytime you have a chance to measure yourself against the standard, you get excited about that," Smith said. "There's no doubt that North Carolina is the standard in women's soccer. We're looking forward to the challenge."

The Tar Heels have a chance to become the first team to finish unbeaten and untied since North Carolina went 23-0-0 in 1993.

The last three teams to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten and untied failed to win the championship. North Carolina lost in the semifinals in 1995 and in the championship game in 1998. Santa Clara lost in the semifinals in 1999.

North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance knows a loss can come at any time.

"Every time we get here, we're absolutely ecstatic," Dorrance said. "This is not old hat. ... We know we could lose easily in the first round. We know one day it will happen."

But until then, Santa Clara is fighting to become just fourth team to beat the Tar Heels in the tournament.

Pain or not, cleats or tennis shoes, there's no time for hurting now. The championship is on the line.