Senior midfielder Christine Nairn (left) and senior forward Tiffany McCarty (right) serve as the perfect complement on the pitch.
Michael D. Kurec/RISE
Archbishop Spalding (Severn, Md.) senior midfielder Christine Nairn and St. John's senior forward Tiffany McCarty are known to teammates on their club team, the Freestate Shooters, as "The Shaq and Kobe Show."
The nickname might seem incongruous considering the two girls are standouts on the soccer pitch rather than the basketball court and they get along well in contrast to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who were famous for bickering while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight NBA championships from 2000-02.
But after watching Nairn and McCarty play together on the Freestate Shooters, it seems the pair of All-Americans may actually have more in common with the two NBA All-Stars than one might think.
"They're so dominant and driven to win that everyone else just takes a back seat," says Freestate Shooters coach Chris Johnson, noting that the nickname has endured even though the real Shaq and Kobe are no longer teammates. "Those two take over -- it's pretty to watch."
No one can quite remember exactly how the nickname originated -- McCarty thinks it may have been at a practice, Nairn says it could have been at a state cup game -- but that only emphasizes the organic nature of their bond.
And there, perhaps, you do see a difference between the relationship shared by the two prep stars and their multi-million-dollar namesakes. While a desire for equal billing as team alpha dogs soured the winning combination between Shaq and Kobe, the ability of Nairn and McCarty to play off each other's strengths has helped them remain unstoppable as a duo and become two of the nation's top prospects in the Class of 2008.
"They are two different players and two different positions, but they're very closely related in their mentalities," says Johnson. "They both just respect each other's talents. They know one will make the other better."
Nairn, a two-time Parade All-American who plays for the U.S. Under-17 National Team, channels her inner Kobe by being the go-to player no matter the situation. "It's not that she's the best dribbler or the strongest or the fastest player," Johnson says. "But whatever the game calls for, that's what she'll be best at."
Before McCarty arrived on the Shooters, Nairn had to do it all -- defend, pace the game, score and lead. Was she successful? No doubt. But as effective as she could have been?
Enter Shaq, err, McCarty -- finisher extraordinaire. Before teaming up with Nairn, the speedster was having a grand ol' time pouring in goals for the Calverton Comets, sometimes collecting the ball at the sweeper position and dribbling through seven or eight opponents before scoring.
But when she came to the Shooters, McCarty, a two-time NSCAA/adidas All-American and fellow U-17 National Team player, didn't have to pull that kind of double duty. With Nairn controlling the midfield, McCarty was free to run at the goal unfettered and await her teammate's perfect ball.
"At first it was, 'I don't know where you're playing and I don't know where you're running,'" says Nairn.
Now..."I'll look up and see her and sometimes she won't even look -- she'll just play it because she knows I'm there," says McCarty.
Comparing the successful symbiotic relationship between Nairn and McCarty to the often dysfunctional partnership of Shaq and Kobe isn't totally fair to the ballers. When Shaq and Kobe both played in Los Angeles before Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat three years ago, both superstars were forced to share the spotlight.
However, the soccer phenoms each have their own opportunity to shine -- McCarty at St. John's, Nairn at Spalding. Neither player embraces the attention, but the two "program changers," as Johnson calls them, can't help but attract it. St. John's head coach Manny Villafana and Spalding skipper Bob Dieterle can attest to that.
Spalding wasn't exactly a program in need of a change, but when Nairn, the 2006-07 Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year and all-time leading scorer in school history with 43 goals, came on as a freshman in 2004, the Cavaliers became instant contenders. They won the regular season Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference title in 2005 and captured the conference tourney last year.
"She's had a very positive effect on the program's success, and there's going to be a lasting success when she leaves," says Dieterle.
McCarty, meanwhile, enters her senior year with 147 career goals and has jump-started the Cadets program. St. John's has won at least 20 games three straight seasons since the two-time District of Columbia Gatorade Player of the Year joined the team as a freshman, capturing its first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title in 2005.
"She's going to be remembered as probably the best soccer player that's ever been at St. John's, and as the quintessential player you'd always want on your team," says Villafana. While they're heroes to their respective programs, you'll never see an air of entitlement from either player. The girls each play on four different soccer teams, but both have time to represent their respective schools in other ways -- Nairn as a three-year member of the basketball team, McCarty as a WCAC-champion hurdler.
Their futures, though, are most definitely on the pitch. Nairn has committed to Penn State, while McCarty was considering the Nittany Lions along with Tennessee, Florida State, Maryland and West Virginia as of press time. Together they've proven "The Shaq and Kobe Show" can stand up against the nation's best, leading their Maryland Olympic Development Program team to a national championship in 2006.
Now McCarty and Nairn hope to take the show international, first in their current roles as members of the U-17 National Team and someday, hopefully, as teammates on a World Cup roster.
"I can see them playing for the full National Team," says Johnson. "I don't think there's anything that's going to hold them back from achieving success in their soccer careers."
And unlike Shaq and Kobe, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight for McCarty and Nairn.