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NCAA Sep 29, 2011

Blue-chip N.J. junior, “big-game player” Nikki Driesse snares dream move to UNC

By Charles Boehm

After flying under the radar for much of her prep career, New Jersey native Nickolette Driesse has burst onto the national scene in impressive fashion over the past year, the latest breakthrough arriving this week as the PDA Charge midfielder joyously accepted a full scholarship to join the University of North Carolina when she graduates from north Jersey’s Wayne Hills high school in 2013.

“UNC has always been my dream school since I was really little. As soon as I found out they were interested in me, there was no doubt in my mind that that was where I wanted to go,” Driesse, better known as “Nikki” to her friends and teammates, told National Soccer Wire this week.

“I just visited all these schools and wanted to wait for the one that I really thought was the one that fit me. I visited North Carolina long ago and I fell in love with the campus right away.”

A highly rated prospect who has every reason to harbor U.S. Women’s National Team ambitions for the future, Driesse is a fiery, skillful central midfielder who somehow bucked the trend of early college commitments despite starring for her club in Elite Club National League play as an underage sophomore last season.

Even as many of her fellow 1994-born players were eagerly signing up for college programs, Driesse watched and waited, a bold decision that paid off handsomely after she proved to be the outstanding performer on an ECNL all-star team that toured England over the summer and dominated their overseas counterparts.

Her MVP displays were even more striking in light of the fact that she was the only member of the squad who had not yet committed herself to a top-tier college program, and it was not long before legendary UNC head coach Anson Dorrance caught word – and video clips – of her abilities.

“It was a bit of a coming-out party,” said Mike O’Neill, her club coach for the past four years, who is also the Director of Coaching for PDA (short for Players Development Academy). “She was on this trip with players that were going to some of the top universities in the country, and even though she always knew she was a talented player, after she spent some time with these guys she was a bit more focused on the process and the level she could play at, and have success.”

O’Neill, whose club has produced a long list of elite players including current U.S. Women’s National Team stars and UNC products Heather O‘Reilly and Tobin Heath, worked to connect Driesse and her family with Dorrance and his staff. As it turned out, the video evidence from the England trip helped prompt the Tarheels boss to arrange phone contact with Driesse last weekend and offer her a full ride – and potentially a showcase role – at Chapel Hill.

“Our PDA players have done well at Carolina and we’ve developed a relationship with him,” explained O‘Neill. “From speaking to myself and [ECNL international tour coach] Jay Howell and watching the clips, Anson felt very good about Nik going to North Carolina…He called, she called, they chatted and 24 hours later she made the decision to go to North Carolina.

“He was actually very surprised that she was still available, after watching some of the things she did on the trip, and listening to the feedback he got from Jay and myself,” added O’Neill. “So he was very surprised, but very happy.”

The feeling is mutual, to say the least.

“They’ve just always been such a good team. They’ve won 20 national championships and coaching-wise, they’re just unbelievable,” said Driesse, whose original college list included strong programs like Tennessee, Miami (Fla.), Maryland and Virginia.

“Tennessee because I have family there, and Miami just because it’s in Florida and it’s also a big school,” she explained. “But I never, ever thought that UNC would ever come into the picture. As soon as it did, it just became really, really clear to me that that’s the school.”

Driesse, who estimates that 20 universities have reached out to her since the August trip to England, was also impressed that Dorrance was ready to consider her for the starting lineup right away.

“They told me that they were losing two of their center midfielders,” she said. “He told me that I was going to play.”

Most Tarheels freshman face a steep learning curve upon entering that elite environment. But those who know Driesse best have little doubt about her ability to excel at the next level and beyond.

“There’s a lot of kids who play soccer, and Nik is one of the players that truly understands it,” said O’Neill, who is also assistant head coach of the women’s program at Rutgers University. “Individually, she spends a lot of time becoming a better player: she does her fitness, she does the things that we ask her to do technically on her own. But she just has a little something that maybe the other kids don’t – she just has this competitive nature, this understanding of the game, [and] she likes the big moments.

“Nik is a big-game player. She competes all the time,” he added. “I know, when we’re going into a championship match, what I’m going to get. That’s big. She just wants to win, plain and simple.”