11/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
THE SIXTH-RANKED DUKE BLUE DEVILS thought they had finally figured out how to stop old nemesis Mia Hamm when, in the first half of a recent game, they held her scoreless. Wrong! The second half had hardly gotten underway when Hamm, a forward for the No. 1-ranked University of North Carolina Tar Heels women's soccer team, stutter-stepped around a defender and planted the ball just inside the right goalpost. Minutes later she soared like a spooked gazelle and headed a corner kick into the twine. Not long after, she left a defender pretzeled in her wake as she bent yet another kick past Duke's diving goalie.
That three-goal performance was pretty standard stuff for Hamm, 21, the ponytailed daughter of a ballerina and an Air Force colonel, who is the reigning top gun of women's college soccer. The senior striker was the women's college player of the year in 1992, when she led the NCAA with 32 goals and 33 assists (including five goals and five assists in three games against Duke). And she is a good bet for the same honor this year. "Mia has this amazing ability to go right through defenders—as if by molecular displacement," says North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance. "The statistics prove it. But they won't show you her acceleration and grace. For that you've got to watch her play."
Actually, to get a proper read on Hamm you need to watch her play both on and off the soccer field. For starters, stop by the ground-floor apartment near the Chapel Hill campus she shares with three teammates.
"Sorry," says the 5'5", 125-pound Hamm as she opens the door. "The place is a bit disheveled."
Disheveled? The place looks like a scene from Animal House. "She won't pick up!" roars Tisha Venturini, an all-America midfielder.
"That's not true!" howls Hamm, as she takes a bead on the basketball net suspended above the dining room table and cranks up a shot.
"Go in her room. You'll find bags in there from the California trip," Venturini says, referring lo a journey the Tar Heels made the week before.
It's soon clear that, whether it's foul shooting, neatness debates or Nintendo games, Hamm and her roommates compete fiercely.
This wouldn't qualify as news to Mia's mother, Stephanie, who says that Mia, the fourth of six children—all Air Force brats reared on bases from Florence, Italy, lo Wichita Falls, Texas—has been a "little ball of fire ever since she was teeny."
When Mia was 5, Stephanie tried to turn her into a dancer. "I thought because she was so petite, she'd be ideal," says Stephanie. "But she hated it."
Soccer, the passion of Mia's father, Bill, was a better fit. "I first played in this peewee league in Wichita Falls," says Mia. "Our team record wasn't very good, but I did manage to score a lot of goals." By the lime she was 14, she had caught the eye of coach John Cossaboon, who got Mia to join his Olympic development team, which had players as old as 19. Soon thereafter Cossaboon called Dorrance, whose North Carolina teams have won 11 national titles, to tell him he'd found a future star.
Dorrance well remembers the first time he saw Hamm in action. "Mia was playing right halfback," he says. "I watched her take a seven-yard run at the ball. And I said, 'Oh, my gosh!' I'd never seen speed like that in the women's game. She had unlimited potential."
Hamm has gone a long way toward realizing that potential while leading the Tar Heels to 70 consecutive wins. "Soccer is not my entire life, but it is a big part," says Hamm, a B-minus political science major whose bulging schedule doesn't allow much time for dating. "I mean, if it weren't for soccer I'd probably be at some community college."
After graduation, Hamm, who was one of the stars—and the youngest player—on the U.S. team that won the women's World Championship in 1991, expects to hone her game for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She will be sorry to leave Chapel Hill, but hardly desolated. "This is my field of dreams," she says. "I've had some wonderful years here, but I don't want to sit and look at all the trophies. I don't want to live in the past—I want to live now!"
Dorrance, a contender for the job of Olympic coach, will be glad to help. "I think she is driven by this passion," he says, "to become the best in the world."
TOM NUGENT in Chapel Hill