UNC’s Summer Green Named To U.S. U20 World Cup Roster

Story by Dave Lohse

CHICAGO, ILL. – U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team head coach Michelle French has named her 21-woman roster that will represent the American side at the 2014 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup, being held in Edmonton, Montreal, Moncton and Toronto, Canada, from Aug. 5-24.

North Carolina rising junior forward Summer Green (Milford, Mich.) has earned one of the roster spots, continuing a long tradition of Tar Heel players who have competed in the U20 World Cup. Two years ago in Japan, Tar Heels Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai and Bryane Heaberlin led the United States to the gold medal.

Green’s current Tar Heel teammate, junior midfielder/defender Katie Bowen, will compete for the New Zealand team at the U20 World Cup and was named the captain of the Football Ferns’ side earlier this week.

All three of the USA’s group games will be broadcast live across the ESPN platforms. The U.S. plays its first two Group B matches at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, opening its tournament on Aug. 5 against Germany at 5 p.m. local (7 p.m. ET on ESPNU and WatchESPN) before facing Brazil on Aug. 8 at 8 p.m. local (10 p.m. ET on ESPNU and WatchESPN).

The USA will finish group play on Aug. 12 against China PR at Moncton Stadium with a kickoff at 5 p.m. local (4 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN). The curtain-raising clash between the USA, which has won this tournament three times, and Germany, which has it won it twice, will pit the countries that played in the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Final in Tokyo.

“We have a good mixture of leadership, talent and great technical ability on all three lines,” said French. “We have a lot of tactical understanding and creativity based on the way they read the game, and I see a lot of grit and bite in the way we defend. The combination of these factors gives us a very well-rounded team.

French named her squad after the first week of a two-week training camp in Seattle, Washington, which will be the last domestic event for the U.S. team before it leaves for Canada in late July. French put her player pool through a thorough evaluation process over the past year and a half, taking a hard look at almost 80 players in training camps and games.


Healthier, Fitter Meeks Eager for Round Two in Chapel Hill

Sophomore UNC forward Kennedy Meeks will be a whole lot lighter when he takes to the Smith Center floor in 2014. A now fully fit Meeks says he’s grown into a smarter and more physical basketball player heading into year two in Chapel Hill.

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Meeks has rededicated himself to the game of basketball in the offseason. The talented forward says during his maiden Carolina campaign, he didn’t always understand how hard he needed to work to compete at the elite level.

“I think for my freshman year, learning that is not easy. Everything is earned, not given. It’s a pretty long season. You have to work hard every day in practice – even off the court. I think that’s very important to our team this year. I think we learned a lot of lessons from last year that we can carry over to this year,” Meeks says.

But now, Meeks appears to be putting in the hard yards and embracing the rigors of college basketball. And that starts with his body. Meeks is sculpting a new body image for himself. The sophomore big man has dropped nearly 45 pounds in a year.

Last summer, Meeks weighed in at a whopping 315 pounds, but these days he’s checking in at a trim 270.

The drop in weight has allowed Meeks to begin throwing down windmill dunks. In fact, he recently saved his teammates from running wind sprints at the end of practice when he displayed his newfound move to Head coach Roy Williams.

Meeks lays it in (Todd Melet)

Meeks lays it in (Todd Melet)

Meeks says his greater explosiveness is not only due to his loss in weight, but his stronger mind as well.

“It’s not easy. I think it’s the mental part. It’s really going out onto the court and being a demand on the inside. I think that’s what I’m trying to do right now,” Meeks says.

Meeks credits determination and more intelligent diet choices for his ability to transform his body and get into prime playing shape.

“Eating right, working out, and being determined. Being a sophomore, I just eat better and am smart with my food choices,” Meeks says.

Even with the excess baggage, Meeks was a big-time performer in high-profile contests as a freshman. He saved his best for last in the Round of 32 NCAA Tournament loss to Iowa State. Meeks posted 15 points and 13 rebounds in 31 minutes of play.

However, Meeks only averaged 16 minutes per game for a reason. He struggled to keep pace with Coach Williams’ track-meet offense, often finding himself gasping for air.

But Meeks says his game continues to be taken to the next level this summer with help from former Tar Heels like Sean May.

“Sean May’s just telling me to keep playing hard, defend, make smarter plays on offense, and get farther out from the basket and shoot. I think he’s really been a good influence this summer,” Meeks says.

The off-court issues surrounding the current Tar Heels still rages on. But Meeks says he and his teammates are doing their best to concentrate on what they can control in preparation for next season.

“I don’t think we let it affect us as much as it did when it first started. We have to put that behind us and focus on our season. It’s pretty important to make Coach [Williams] happy and make our fans happy,” Meeks says.

One thing is for sure. A slimmed down Meeks in 2014 promises to bring a smile to the faces of Coach Williams and Tar Heel fans everywhere.


Strong-Legged UNC Punter Tommy Hibbard Proving His Worth

One of the most under-the-radar performers for the Tar Heel football team heading into 2014 may be the starting punter, but he’s not being overlooked for the NCAA’s most prestigious award at his position.

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Having the ability to reverse the field position on an opponent is huge. It can often prove to be the difference between losing and winning a game.

And there’s likely no position more critical to this ‘flipping of the script’ than the punter – just ask LSU fans.

Australian American Brad Wing achieved national stardom during several nationally televised showdowns, most notably against rival Alabama, for his tremendous accuracy and leg strength, pinning opponents back inside their own 10-yard line with regularity. Wing is currently playing in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Although not as famous as his Bayou counterpart, Carolina’s Tommy Hibbard has that uncanny ability to change the complexion of a game with a single boot of his leg. The senior showed off his immense talents on more than a few occasions last season.

The Charlotte product averaged 43 yards per punt on 65 attempts in his junior campaign. Most notably, 25 of his kicks were downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Those kicks really pay dividends. They apply pressure on the opponent, make them contend with rowdy crowd noise surrounding the endzones, and open the door for vital, quality field position for the offense with a successful three and out.

The Augusta Sports Council is taking notice of Hibbard. They’ve recently named him to the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which is awarded to the nation’s premier collegiate punter.

After all, Hibbard spearheaded a Tar Heel unit that ranked fourth in the nation in punt return average, with opponents only managing to gain a mere 2.89 yards per return.

Hibbard in action (UNC Athletics)

Hibbard in action (UNC Athletics)

It can be easy to overlook a punter’s prowess. When these guys trot out onto the field, one set of fans is already disgusted at the offense’s inability to sustain a scoring drive. But a well executed, long bomb by the punter that pins the opponents back can demoralize the receiving squad.

So don’t forget about Hibbard. He may just turn out to be the X-factor in a pivotal game for the Tar Heels in 2014.


Former Tar Heel Seager Ready For ‘Honor’ Of All-Star Status

There will be some Tar Heel flavor present Tuesday night at Target Field for the annual MLB All-Star Game. Former Carolina standout and current Seattle Mariner third baseman Kyle Seager will take to the field in front of the national spotlight.

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“This is obviously a dream come true. Everybody grows up wanting to play in the big leagues and become an All-Star. For that to happen is pretty special. It’s something that I’m very proud of. I’m very honored,” Seager says.

Seager has already smashed 15 home runs and 63 RBIs entering this week for the Mariners and has earned a nice reward for his efforts – his first career All-Star appearance in his fourth season in the majors.

While at Chapel Hill, Seager sported a .353 batting average in his three seasons and was a second-team All-America second baseman as a sophomore in 2008. The N.C. native smacked a school-record 30 doubles that same season and ranks in the top 10 in career batting average, hits, doubles, triples and total bases at UNC.

The 26-year-old led the Tar Heels to three consecutive College World Series appearances, including a spot in the championship series in 2007.

Seager replaced Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion, who was announced as the AL starter at third base before being placed on the disabled list.

But Seager will be joined by a few familiar faces Tuesday night. Three of his teammates – Felix Hernandez, Fernando Rodney and Robinson Cano – will be by his side.

And that’s comforting for Seager, who says he’ll be following Cano’s lead around the clubhouse, as he usually does.

“To go with a couple guys you know will be good. I can basically do there what I do here and just kind of follow Cano around. It will work out well for me,” Seager says.

With his selection, Seager has become the eighth Tar Heel to earn a coveted slot in the All-Star game.

Seager says he’s just humbled to be thought of so highly in his profession.

“It’s an honor just to be in consideration for it. To have people believe that I should be there is special. It’s been really cool,” Seager says.

Fans can catch all the action with Seager and the rest of the All Stars later Tuesday night. The game will be televised on Fox at 8 p.m.


UNC Defensive Line Features Trifecta of Depth, Talent and Experience

Head Coach Larry Fedora’s potent, up-tempo Tar Heel football offense receives most of the high-profile attention, but the Carolina skipper has been pointing to the other side of the ball as the most improved so far in 2014.

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Coach Fedora is starting to feel more and more comfortable with his big guys up front on the oft-maligned Tar Heel defense that reached its low point in 2013 inside Kenan Stadium when Carolina was completely embarrassed by an East Carolina team that ran UNC ragged in front of the home fans.

From that point on though, progress has slowly been made for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s boys.

Earlier in the spring, the coaching staff was especially pleased with the added depth on the line.

The probable choices for the defensive tackle positions are two hefty seniors. Ethan Farmer, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 295 pounds, and Shawn Underwood, at 6 feet, 1 inch and 300 pounds, should provide solid experience for the unit.

Farmer took to the field in all 12 games in 2013 and Underwood saw action in eight contests.

But the pair of seniors will have younger athletes nipping at their heels. Junior Justin Thomason and redshirt freshman Greg Webb are both talented options, only further bolstering the depth up front.

As far as defensive end, the Tar Heels boast a trio of players who could spend time making Saturday contributions. Although junior Jessie Rogers and sophomore Junior Gnonkonde may have the edge at the position, don’t be surprised if highly-touted redshirt freshmen Nazir Jones and Dajuan Drennon stir things up in opposing teams’ backfields.

However, the star of this defensive unit is no doubt senior bandit Norkeithus Otis. His place in the starting lineup is unquestioned. Earlier this week, Otis tabbed as a contender for the Bednarik Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive performer.

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play. (Elliott Rubin)

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play. (Elliott Rubin)

If Otis follows up his heroics in 2013 with even more improvement, 2014 could shape up to be something special in his Chapel Hill swansong.

The competition should be fierce heading into fall practice. But that’s good news for the Tar Heels.

Despite the brutal losses of Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson to the NFL, the Carolina defensive line appears, at least for the time being, to be in capable hands.


Former Tar Heel Seager Snags All-Star Spot

Seattle Mariner third baseman and former Tar Heel All-American Kyle Seager was named to the 2014 American League All-Star team earlier this week by the MLB.

Seager has already smashed 13 home runs and 59 RBIs entering this week for the Mariners and has earned a nice reward for his efforts – his first career All-Star appearance.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Mariners

Seager – Photo courtesy of Seattle Mariners

While at Chapel Hill, Seager sported a .353 batting average in his three seasons and was a second-team All-America second baseman as a sophomore in 2008. The N.C. native smacked a school-record 30 doubles that same season and ranks in the top 10 in career batting average, hits, doubles, triples and total bases at UNC.

He led the Tar Heels to three consecutive College World Series appearances, including a spot in the championship series in 2007.

Seager will replace Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion, who was announced as the AL starter at third base before being placed on the disabled list on Monday.

With his selection, Seager has become the eighth Tar Heel to earn a coveted slot in the All-Star game.


Carolina Men’s Soccer Adds O’Keefe To Coaching Lineup

The UNC men’s soccer program is making moves this offseason. In an effort to fortify recruiting efforts, earlier this week, the Tar Heels and head coach Carlos Somoano hired Jason O’Keefe as an assistant coach.

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O’Keefe joins the Carolina soccer team after spending the last four seasons at Saint Louis University as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.

O’Keefe should provide an added boost in the recruiting department, his primary responsibility for the Tar Heels. He’s coached or recruited 32 players that have been drafted and played professionally in the United States and abroad.

O'Keefe (UNC Athletics)

O’Keefe (UNC Athletics)

O’Keefe was named the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Mid-Atlantic Region Assistant Coach of the Year at the conclusion of the 2012 season. He guided the Billikens to an Atlantic 10 Conference tournament title and a No. 8 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The man who began his prolific coaching career inside the ACC at Wake Forest in 2003 and graduated from Greensboro College in 1997 with a degree in history and secondary education, says he’s “honored and humbled to join an institution like North Carolina that strives for the best both academically and on the playing field.”

There’s been one consistent theme to O’Keefe throughout his career – that’s winning. In addition to his recent success at Saint Louis, he won a ACC regular season championship with the Demon Deacons in 2004 and guided the Cincinnati Bearcats to a Big East crown in 2006.

The Tar Heels kick off their 2014 campaign Aug. 29 by hosting the Carolina Nike Classic and welcoming west coast foes California and UCLA to Chapel Hill.

By all outside appearances, it looks like an impressive hire for UNC, which struggled to find the back of the net a season ago. If O’Keefe is able to attract some more offensive talent to Chapel Hill to go along with an already formidable defense, it will be a mission accomplished.


Tar Heel Trio In NCAA Gridiron Spotlight

The Carolina football season is still a month and a half away, but the preseason hype continues to build as a trio of Tar Heels was named Monday to watch lists for prestigious national awards.

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Senior bandit Norkeithus Otis was placed on the short list for the 20th annual Chuck Bednarik Award.

The Bednarik Award is presented to the nation’s premier college football defensive player of the year.

A season ago, Otis burst onto the scene with an impressive 2013 campaign that featured 7.5 sacks and 49 total tackles, including 13 for a loss. Additionally, he was second at UNC with nine quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. In short, he was a nightmare for opposing offenses.

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play.

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play.

Bednarik, the award’s namesake, was a standout performer at the University of Pennsylvania and then later in the NFL at the Philadelphia Eagles. Bednarik has been enshrined in both the college football and NFL hall of fames.

For Otis to be up for such an award in his final go-around in a Carolina uniform, speaks volumes to the drastic improvement made by the native of Gastonia who was relegated to special teams duty his first two seasons in Chapel Hill.

On the other side of the ball, two UNC offensive playmakers are making national noise.

The Louisville Sports Commission tabbed both running back T.J. Logan and return specialist and wideout Ryan Switzer to the 2014 Watch List for the Paul Hornung Award.

Ryan Switzer

Ryan Switzer

Now in its fifth season, the Hornung Award is doled out to the most versatile player on the NCAA gridiron.

Players on this year’s watch list tallied 9,799 rushing yards, 21,281 receiving yards, 18,353 kickoff return yards and 4,104 punt return yards in 2013.

And Carolina’s Switzer and Logan accounted for quite a few of those special teams numbers last season. Switzer accounted for 419 yards in punt return yardage, an ACC high, while Logan amassed 391 yards off kickoffs.

The book is out on this talented trio. These three Carolina gridiron greats won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2014.


“Go Heels, Go America!” Feeling Pervading UNC Football

July Fourth is here. And there aren’t too many things more American than college football. For many in the Chapel Hill community, the popular slogan, “Go Heels, Go America!” comes to mind this time of the year.

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Those chants could be growing to a fever pitch come this fall if the preseason projections ring true for the Carolina football team.

Believe it or not, the 2014 ACC Football Kickoff, held at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, is less than three weeks away.

The newly expanded league (hello, Louisville!) will welcome the head coaches and select players from all 15 member schools on July 20-21 to face the media in the unofficial start of the college football season.

Of course, the brightest lights will shine on defending national champion Florida State and the Seminoles’ Heisman trophy winner, Jameis Winston.

But not far from the spotlight and still on the main stage, will be UNC, Head Coach Larry Fedora, and his high-powered, up-tempo offensive playmakers fielding questions on a possible date in Charlotte with FSU in the ACC Championship Game come December.

College football guru Phil Steele has UNC ranked No. 18 in his preseason prognosis in his annual preview publication. Only two ACC schools rank higher on his list – Notre Dame at No. 17 and FSU at No. 1.

What’s more, Steele has eight Tar Heels tabbed for All-ACC honors. Electric return man Ryan Switzer and standout punter Tommy Hibbard are projected as first-team All-American and ACC selections.

Steele’s not going out on a limb there. Switzer earned first-team All-America honors as a freshman a season ago thanks to his five return touchdowns that tied the NCAA record.

Switzer sprinting ahead (GoHeels.com)

Switzer sprinting ahead (GoHeels.com)

On the ACC second team, athletic quarterback Marquise Williams, dynamic wide receiver Quinshad Davis and sturdy linebacker Norkeithus Otis have all been featured by Steele.

On Wednesday, Otis was added to the College Football Performance Awards Linebacker Trophy Watch List. Playing at the bandit position in 2013, Otis registered 7.5 sacks and recorded 49 tackles, including 13 for a loss.

Otis is joined by teammate Travis Hughes in preseason recognition at the linebacker position. In addition, senior safety Tim Scott and elusive running back T.J. Logan snagged spots on Steele’s All-ACC team.

There’s plenty to look forward to on this Fourth of July for Tar Heel nation. With such a stable of high-level performers taking to the Kenan Stadium stage this fall, the patriotic showering of  “Go Heels, Go America!” could be reverberating like never before.


Veterans, Rookies Seizing The Summer for Tar Heels

Although mired in the hovering dark cloud of academic scandal and being largely overshadowed these days by the likes of uber-talented Duke and Kentucky nationwide, Head Coach Roy WilliamsCarolina squad is quietly going about its business this summer.

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Taking advantage of a new NCAA policy enacted a couple seasons ago that allows teams to meet two hours per week for official summer practice, the Tar Heels are getting their first real look at some fresh new faces.

It’s a crash course for the young guys, veteran Jackson Simmons says.

The highly-touted freshman trio of Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson are taking the challenge of elite college basketball head on with the help of the upperclassmen.

Joel James says the summer provides a relatively low-pressure training ground for the new guys before getting thrown into the crucible of the ACC basketball season.

Simmons also says it’s a vital opportunity for the older players to get to know the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of their new teammates.

But summer practice is not only a wading pool for the incoming freshmen to ease in and get their feet wet. It’s brutal competition, too.

With the wide array of Tar Heels in the NBA, the summer affords current Carolina players the chance to test their skills against seasoned professionals in pick-up games. That’s not bad preparation.

So how are the Tar Heels looking? Well, one name that’s been popping up so far this summer is Kennedy Meeks. The sophomore reportedly continues to get in better and better shape, shedding a few extra pounds.

That’s music to the ears of Coach Williams.

Kennedy Meeks (Todd Melet)

Kennedy Meeks (Todd Melet)

Notably, Nate Britt has made the switch from shooting left-handed to right-handed in the offseason. That news was met with perplexity by many observers. But early reports say Britt has been shooting lights out in recent pick-up games.

Another prominent returning UNC player’s name that’s been circulating around is Joel James. James says his injury last December derailed his momentum on the floor.

But signs are pointing towards a James that could be much more of a dominant force inside – a welcome development for the Tar Heels.

Most preseason projections place Carolina in somewhere between No. 5 and No. 10 in the rankings, but for now, the UNC players, young and old, seem focused on seizing the summer, taking care of their own business and improving each day.