At the NCAA soccer tournament for the last few years, Virginia coach Bruce Arena has carried an attachè case containing everything from Japanese charms to an inspirational letter from a former player to a team talisman known as the golden jockstrap. On Sunday, in Davidson, N.C., after the Cavaliers won their third straight national title with a 2-0 victory over South Carolina, Arena added an item to his collection—the removable fiberglass cast worn all season by Virginia forward Nate Friends, who broke his left wrist while training in August.
The first three-peat champion in the 35 years of the NCAA men's soccer tournament, Virginia got all five of its goals in the final four from Friends, a 6'2", 185-pound junior who grew up in McLean, Va. Last Friday, in the semifinals against Princeton, Friends used his speed to get behind the Tigers' zone defense and scored all of Virginia's goals in its 3-1 win. In the 40th minute of Sunday's title match, he scored the first goal by leaping to head the ball in from the far post off Mike Fisher's corner kick. "He just beat me to it," South Carolina defender Greg King said. "I knew he was coming, but not that hard." In the 86th minute, Friends curled behind the Gamecocks and drove home a seven-yard volley off Fisher's indirect kick.
After the game, while the rest of the Cavs celebrated in a pileup, Friends calmly did a TV interview and wished his eight-year-old brother, Jason, a quick recovery from the flu. Despite his five goals, Friends was hardly basking in his own heroics. "I wanted to win and really didn't care who scored," he said. "But if I had to score, that was O.K. too."
Arena called the rugged final a "blue-collar game," which made it an odd fit for Friends. His father, Nate Sr., is a corporate vice-president and general counsel for a division of AT&T. Nate didn't worry about getting a scholarship, but he did have to choose between soccer and basketball. Blessed with a 35-inch vertical leap, Friends also excelled in high school basketball, and he considered attending some Division I schools that would have allowed him to suit up in both sports. His heart, though, was in soccer. "He's very similar playing both sports—the quick first step and the jumping ability—and he's just really tenacious," says Nate Sr.
Friends came off the bench last December to score a goal in the '92 NCAA championship game, floating in his own rebound during Virginia's 2-0 win over San Diego. But because of the wrist injury, he struggled this year, scoring only seven goals during the team's 17-3 regular season. His low output prompted Arena to jokingly promise Friends a warmup suit if he scored in the ACC tournament. Friends did. Arena continued with his imaginary incentives. After scoring on Sunday, Friends was supposed to receive a van. "All this couldn't happen to a better kid," Arena said. "But don't misunderstand me—Nate's not getting a van."
Arena has carried around his collectibles since '89. In that time, Virginia has won four of five national titles. Now, from the star of the '93 champions, it includes the supporting cast.