Whitney Engen, a senior at the University of North Carolina completed her brilliant college soccer career last month when the Tar Heels defeated the Stanford Cardinals to win their third National Championship in the last four years. Engen a resident of Rolling Hills Estates, California played center back for the team. She made the transition to defense after starting at forward her first two years at North Carolina, finishing those two seasons as the team's third-leading scorer. Engen has won more awards than her trophy case can fit. She was selected as a 2009 first-team NSCAA and Soccer America All-America and won the 2009 Honda Sports Award in soccer, designating her as the nation's top collegiate female athlete in the sport. The Honda Sports Award is based on the results of national balloting among 1,000 NCAA member schools as part of the Collegiate Women Sports Award program. As the Honda Sports Award winner, Engen was automatically a semifinalist for the 2009 Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy, the highest individual honor in intercollegiate soccer. Engen was also named this years NCAA Women’s College Cup MVP on Defense, as well as Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year. The Tar Heels team defense was so dominant that it finished the season with 19 shutouts and only allowed 12 goals. The 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer Draft will be held on January 15 and Engen is almost unanimously considered to be the top defender available.
I spoke with Engen this week and asked her to reflect on her path to stardom as a Tar Heel and her thoughts about her future as a professional player.
AA: Whitney, congratulations on your stellar play and participation to help the University of North Carolina Tar Heels bring home another NCAA Soccer Championship. What are some of the perks/opportunities that receiving the 2009 Honda Sports Award in soccer has or can bring to your life?
Whitney Engen: Thank you. It is a great honor for me to have received the Honda Sports Award. I did not imagine myself winning it, especially being in contention with the players that I was. I think the perks for me of winning it are that I am able to bring a little more notoriety to my name as I try to push forward into a professional career. I know that this award is not going to follow me far into a professional career, but it may help me to get a little higher or further as I first start. This boost may come in the form of an earlier draft choice or maybe an endorsement contract, but I cannot know for sure.
AA: What are some major developments you’ve made as a player mentally and physically during the 4 years you’ve played in this program that have helped you achieve your level of consistency and success on the playing field?
Whitney Engen: Playing for Anson [Dorrance] was the best decision I ever made for both my soccer career and the development of myself personally. He encouraged us to mature in all areas of our lives both on and off the field.
Physically, Anson is always promoting a “never ending ascension,” in which he believes that we only get fitter as we age. All of our scores in terms of fitness, speed, agility, vertical jump, and weight lifting are scored three times throughout a school year. Players are always encouraged to try to top their past score and matching it is not enough. I think that his unwillingness to accept mediocrity is what makes the program so successful. I feel that I developed physically and mentally in ways that I had never deemed possible. I did not think it was possible to “get faster,” but somehow I could always manage to make my speed score higher. The same applies for my development mentally. Coming into college, I was a very insecure player, but I think after gaining Anson’s acceptance for four years, I am now able to believe in myself in ways I had not done before. I think this is because he holds us to such a high standard, that when a player gets approval from him, their confidence can only go up.
AA: In the Tar Heels athletic profile, you mention your parents twice – once as “the people with the greatest influence on my athletic career” and again under “I can’t live without.” Over the years, in what ways have your parents supported and been an important link in the chain of your success?
Whitney Engen: My parents are awesome and I know I would not be where I am today without them. My parents have done so much for me both with my career and just being the most stable support system a kid could ask for. My mom and dad were always very understanding that soccer was MY hobby and even when I was having great success at it, they only encouraged me to keep going if I was enjoying it. They never pushed me to do things I was not interested in doing and they pretty much left the decisions I made up to me. Now that is not to say that they did not give me guidance, because they definitely did a lot of that. But overall, they were and still are so supportive of my career choices and only offer advice without stipulations.
AA: There are many “pushy, crazy parents” in the youth sports scene that at times have unfortunately driven their kids out of sports. In what ways did your parents encourage your talent, yet keep their boundaries to nurture your development as a player?
Whitney Engen: I think that the way that they kept me interested is that they always gave me the opportunity to quit. This is the mentality that they kept with me since I was a very young child, which I really appreciate. This goes as far back to when I was deciding to play soccer or not at the age of 7. I remember my dad signing me up for AYSO and telling me I was going to play soccer. Well, at the age of 5, I had decided that I wanted to be the best gymnast in the world and soccer was going to interfere with this life goal. I protested every practice and every game. When the time came to sign up for soccer again, my dad did so and I was outraged. Interestingly enough, during my second year of AYSO, the gymnastics gym that I went to informed me that a 5-foot 6 year old did not have that much potential as a world renowned gymnast. So when it came time to sign up for AYSO a third time, my dad came to me and asked, “Do you want to play soccer?" After protesting so vehemently for the past two years, I remember feeling stupid with my answer of yes, but the moral of the story is that they gave me the opportunity to stop. This continued all throughout my soccer career, as I cannot remember the number of times I complained to my mom or dad about soccer and they informed me that I was not chained to the field and that once my commitments were fulfilled I could stop.
AA: All the articles and interviews I’ve read leave a feeling that there is a tremendous amount of respect amongst players on the teams you’ve played on at UNC. Is this quality of respect taught as part of the program development of players or are the players recruited because of this ability to understand how this quality bonds a team?
Whitney Engen: I think that the respect is mostly gained and developed once players enter UNC. Almost every player from UNC is the best player wherever they come from. What makes UNC special is that we all go out to the field each and every day and try to push each other to be better. I believe that when you compete as hard as we do day in and day out, it is difficult [not to] gain respect for your fellow teammates.
AA: With three national soccer championships in the past 4 years, what are some of the rewarding elements of playing in such a high caliber program?
Whitney Engen: People look at me like I am an idiot when I tell them this, but this is the honest truth: After my four years at Carolina, the things that I am going to remember the most are the players and not the Championships. For me making it to the National Championship means that I get to play one more game with my teammates. Playing at UNC has been the best experience of my life so far and I think that getting the opportunity to play as many games as possible in a season is extremely rewarding. My teammates, and especially my class, are like my sisters, and playing soccer with them has been a real joy for me.
AA: After winning the national championship several times, did you encounter any reduction in motivation, and if so, how did you renew your desire to stay hungry to win? Does the coach address this issue to the team?
Whitney Engen: I do not think that I ever encountered a reduction in motivation because each one of us is constantly trying to be the best, which pushes our team to achieve great things. I think that one of the coolest but hardest things about playing for Carolina is that we have a history that is filled with championships. Within our team, we start every season with the goal of winning a National Championship and anything less is [a] failure. This is the case for the off-season as well. After every National Championship that we have won, we have had a meeting with Anson no more than two days after, outlining what we need to start doing to prepare for next year. Plus, if we are not doing well, we hear about it from the Alumni which is never fun.
AA: In each of the past six semesters, you’ve made the dean’s list and maintained a 3.6 grade point average. Many players find juggling playing D-1 at a top ranked school and academics a challenging task. Was it a challenge for you and how did you learn to manage your time so well?
Whitney Engen: I would be lying if I said it was easy, but most things in life aren’t. I think that balancing soccer and school really comes down to time management, but it not something that every person can do. I often draw parallels for people to show that there are many other students in college that are balancing as much, if not more than me. I look at the amount of work that girls in sororities put in and I am thankful that when I leave the field my work is done. I think that in today’s world, a lot of students are balancing a lot of things and that time management is the key to figuring it all out.
AA: You are preparing to enter the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) Draft. Transitioning from collegiate to professional competition is typically a big shift. What do you anticipate as the major challenges for you at this next level, mentally, physically, and socially through team dynamics?
Whitney Engen: I know that I am going to be matched up with players of a higher caliber on a more consistent basis and that teams are going to be harder, but overall I think that playing at Carolina has prepared me for any type of environment. I think major challenges may entail the fact that it is a much longer season (6 months compared to 4) and that it is now my job and not my hobby.
AA: Is the potential income from playing professional women’s soccer at this time high enough to afford you a full-time career at the next level? Will you have to supplement your income from other types of work? Can players negotiate independent endorsements from companies? I know you spoke about attending law school. Is this something you could do between seasons?
Whitney Engen: I am not really sure how to answer this question, as I will not know what my salary looks like until my contract is negotiated. No, I am waiting to go to law school when I am completely done with soccer so that I can divert all of my attention to graduating high in my class.
AA: What will you miss most about your athletic career as a Tar Heel?
Whitney Engen: I will miss the bonds and camaraderie that exists at UNC. There is a huge amount of respect among all student athletes and it is always so much fun to go to all of the different games and cheer them on. I will also miss seeing my teammates every day. When I tell you they are like my sisters, I am not lying. I would honestly miss some of them on our days off and the best part of my day would be knowing that I would get to see them all at 3:00.
AA: What will you miss most about your time at UNC as a student?
Whitney Engen: Actually, since I am taking the spring semester off to play, I am going to finish up next fall so I am not quite done with school yet…
AA: What advice can you offer to aspiring D-1 soccer players who seek to replicate your success?
Whitney Engen: I think the biggest piece of advice that I can offer is that you can take your soccer career as far as you want to take it. If someone else is telling you to go practice and you do not want to do it, then maybe playing at the highest level is not for you. That is ok too though because there are several people who play soccer for the pure enjoyment of the sport. If you find yourself addicted to the game, cannot get enough of it, and want to reach the highest level, I would recommend applying yourself wholeheartedly to everything that you do. Do not ever feel like you have completely learned the game, as soccer is always evolving and getting better. If you push yourself and accept nothing less than your best, I think you will go far.
AA: Do you have any favorite inspirational stories, tips, or quotes that have guided you?
Whitney Engen: I was having a really difficult time between my sophomore and junior year and was struggling with injury. I had remembered a poem that my dad had written me before I left for college and managed to find it in my room. Growing up, my dad had always told me that I had “Earned the Right” to step onto any field. By this he meant that I had put in enough hours outside of games towards soccer, that I had earned the right to play on the field. This saying was aimed at helping me with self-confidence, as I struggled with it for most of my youth career. After I found the poem, I remember reading it and letting it become my mantra. It helped to get back to my roots and remember the little things that were necessary in order for me to be at my best.
On behalf of Access Athletes, we would like to thank Whitney for taking time out of her busy schedule to do an interview with The Real Athlete Blog.