This article was written at the UNC Sports Journalism Camp. All quotes are from press conferences with Megan Buckingham and Julia Ashley, unless otherwise noted.
Every morning, Megan Buckingham wakes up in her Chapel Hill dorm with her dreams fresh in her mind. While her groggy roommates reluctantly pull themselves from the allure of their beds, Buckingham transcribes her dreams into her designated dream journal, then relates to her half-asleep roommates her latest unbelievable tale.
“My dreams are extremely vivid,” Buckingham said. “They don’t really make sense. I can’t see where they’re going.”
But there’s one dream that Buckingham chases. She’s a North Carolina soccer star, and her heart is set on winning a national championship. Though UNC women’s soccer is heralded as one of the greatest athletic programs in the history of sports with an astonishing 22 championship victories in 36 years of competition, Buckingham, a rising senior, has yet to experience the joy of winning a national championship. The crushing defeats of the past three years have only stoked the competitive fire burning inside her, making her, and her North Carolina team, one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
The legend of Megan Buckingham starts in Northville, Michigan. At age four, she was competing in a co-ed soccer league, drawing motivation from her competition– the boys in the league. By high school, her game attracted national attention, including a selection to the U.S. national women’s team for her age division.
Even though she was endowed with elite talent, Buckingham wouldn’t settle to be anything but the best, evidenced by her relentless training and drive.
“There was something about not being the best one on the field, or the best one in the gym,” Buckingham said. “It irritated me, so I would just strive to one up the next person.”
Her hard efforts paid off. During her sophomore year, Buckingham received a scholarship to play for the North Carolina Tar Heels, the dominant women’s soccer program in the country. It was an offer too great to pass up and she committed months later.
After completing a prolific high school career that culminated in a state championship and All-America selection her senior year, Buckingham headed south for North Carolina. When teammate Brook Elby suffered a season-ending injury, Buckingham grabbed the starting midfielder position and ran with it. She never let go of the starting job, contributing four goals and earning ACC Freshman of the Year honors. Unlike many of its Chapel Hill predecessors, the 2014 team fell short of a championship, as the Tar Heels suffered a third-round defeat to South Carolina left a sour taste in the Tar Heels’ mouths.
The following fall, Buckingham had to deal with an even tougher foe than her ACC opponents- a devastating collarbone injury during the summer of her sophomore year that relegated her to the bench for the entirety of the preseason and the start of the regular season. She regards the experience as the most difficult test of her career.
“It was really frustrating,” Buckingham said. “Watching your team on the sidelines is the worst thing. Preseason you’re getting ready for the season, working hard, and I’m just sitting there watching.”
During the experience, Buckingham showed a rare determination and dedication to her team. After completing her recovery from the injury, she returned to the field for the team’s fifth game and resumed her stellar play. But the team’s postseason came to an abrupt halt yet again after the team was eliminated in the second round by Texas A&M .
As a junior, Buckingham emerged as a superstar for the talent-laden Tar Heels. She found her footing late in the season and stepped up as the team’s top performer. It was hardly a coincidence that her North Carolina team reeled off wins in five of its final six regular season games and almost won the ACC tournament. The team’s momentum continued into the NCAA tournament as the Tar Heels ripped off four straight victories to reach the Final Four.
“Megan Buckingham has been our best field player,” head coach Anson Dorrance said in a November interview with the Daily Tar Heel. “Our best field player and our most consistent every game is Megan Buckingham, and she continues to improve.”
North Carolina couldn’t muster any more magic against top seeded West Virginia and suffered a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Mountaineers. The loss marked the first time that a UNC class was unable to win a single championship, as the Class of 2017 came up empty-handed in four years, and the title drought for the once-dominant program extended another year. Buckingham took the loss especially hard and used it as fuel to her competitive flame.
“Last year’s loss was tough because I’d never been to the Final Four and losing on that Friday was heartbreaking,” Buckingham said. “Definitely motivating for this year. Most of the girls on the team have that motivation still burning in them and it’s a huge drive.”
As she enters her senior season, Buckingham knows that the urgency to win a national championship has never been greater. Her unrivaled motivation and work ethic has rubbed off on her younger teammates, whose contributions will be critical to a late season run.
“I think she brings the competitive fire and nature into everything she does,” defender and junior Julia Ashley said. “She’s the first one up in the morning, ready to go, she’s early to everything. She’s just always doing the right things.”
Until the NCAA championship trophy is in her hands, Buckingham will keep grinding, keep playing her intense brand of soccer. She will fight until every ounce of her game-changing athleticism is spent. She will rise to the pantheon of Tar Heel greats, including her childhood idol, Mia Hamm, and prove that she has earned the right to play in Carolina blue.
And one crisp November morning next fall, Megan Buckingham hopes, she will wake up knowing her dream to be a reality.