The celebratory cartwheel Nandi Pryce turned at midfield after UCLA's last goal in a 4-0 victory over Penn State in an NCAA quarterfinal last week also was symbolic of the spin the senior defender has been able to put on her injury-plagued college soccer career.
"It's been a road for me, sometimes a really hard road," said Pryce, who sat out much of her first two seasons because of a broken leg and two surgeries. "It's been a road for us as a team too. But we're on the upside right now."
The victory over Penn State vaulted the No. 4-seeded Bruins (20-1-3) into the NCAA Women's College Cup in Cary, N.C., where today they will face unbeaten and top-seeded North Carolina (25-0) in a semifinal. Florida (17-7-1) and Connecticut (14-5-3) will meet in the other semifinal.
"We're excited to be playing North Carolina," Pryce said. "We like being the team that's the underdog but that has a chance to show what we can do."
That chance is a second one. The Bruins' only loss this season is to the Tar Heels, who defeated UCLA, 5-2, in the Duke/Adidas Classic on Sept. 19.
"After that game, I told the girls, 'That's the best team in the country, and anybody that wants to win a championship is going to have to go through them,' " UCLA Coach Jillian Ellis said. "And sure enough, here we are."
The Bruins, Pacific 10 Conference champions, have a 17-game unbeaten streak and appear to be peaking, similar to their captain, Pryce, a national player of the year candidate.
Pryce suffered a broken left leg in the sixth game of her freshman year and sat out the rest of the season, including the Bruins' 2-1 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA title game. Then, because of complications from the injury, she underwent a second surgery and sat out the first nine games of her sophomore season.
Last year, Pryce started 21 of 22 matches and was nominated for the Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy, college soccer's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. This season, she again is among 15 nominees for the award despite not scoring a goal and having only five assists.
"Even without the stats, we really center our attack around her," Ellis said of Pryce, who was co-player of the year in the Pac-10 with Washington forward Tina Frimpong. "Plus, she's kind of the spiritual leader of our team."
Pryce, a 5-foot-10 sweeper whose older brother Trevor plays for the Denver Broncos, heads the Bruins' self-styled "No-Goal Patrol," directing traffic along a back line that includes senior Kat Lee and juniors Amy Fazio and Kendal Billingsley playing in front of freshman goalkeeper Arianna Criscione.
The group has not given up a goal in four postseason games and has helped the Bruins tie a single-season school record with 15 shutouts. UCLA gave up 0.64 goals a game in conference and 0.67 overall.
"We are so connected. If we play together, we're a hard team to score on," Pryce said. "We take a lot of pride in that."
Even while anchoring the defense, Pryce plays a role similar to a center-midfielder's, distributing the ball upfield or helping UCLA control the middle by using her height and athletic ability to gain possession out of the air.
"She doesn't have to score goals to have a significant impact on a game," said North Carolina Coach Anson Dorrance, who recruited Pryce when she attended Lake Howell High in Winter Springs, Fla.
Pryce had two assists against Penn State in what Ellis said was her best game.
Hence the cartwheels. And if the Bruins should upset North Carolina?
At a minimum -- more cartwheels.