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THE GIRL with steady feet had shaky hands. She dialed the phone number, then waited for an answer.
"I just got a date to the prom!" squealed Heather O'Reilly, an East Brunswick (N.J.) High senior, a short time later, recounting the call. "That's the big thing right now."
Correction: She's the big thing. At 18 O'Reilly is the youngest member of the U.S. women's soccer team, which will defend its World Cup title this September in China. Within 24 hours of landing the prom date, O'Reilly, a 5'4" forward, scored the clinching goal in a 3-1 win over archrival Norway last Thursday at die Four Nations tournament in China. (The event, running through Wednesday, involves the host country, Germany, Norway and the U.S.)
But on a squad of mothers, O'Reilly is still a daughter. "She's funny, she's naive, she's cute," says coach April Heinrichs. On the bus trip from Shanghai to Yiwu, site of the Norway win, the veterans talked dresses and dates with their young charge. Seven-year national team member Cindy Parlow, 24, who missed her prom to play in a match, told O'Reilly, "I'm living through you."
More and more, the U.S. will be looking to her. In Sunday's 2-0 loss to China, O'Reilly came on in the second half and was a constant threat to score. Comparing her on-field development with that of her celebrated teammates, Heinrichs says, "She's more technical and more tactical [than they were] at 18. She has a one-versus-one personality but the ability to get others involved. Her self-esteem is shockingly ahead of her peers'."
But in many ways she's just another Jersey girl. "Sometimes I forget she's a prodigy," says Kayleigh Russo, Heather's best friend. Recently the two were sharing a sundae at Ruby Tuesday's when Kayleigh noticed a group of guys a few tables over. Glances were exchanged, and one of the boys walked up to the pair. He pulled out a scrap of paper. "Could I have your autograph?" he asked Heather. "My little sister is a big soccer player." Heather signed. Then he gave her a blank napkin. "Now this one's for me."
O'Reilly has a poodle pup named Sugar, an MP3 player for her Eminem downloads and a sense of humor about her new fame: Four years ago she was worrying that she wouldn't make high school varsity. "It's ironic when cute boys come up to me and it's not to talk or to hang out," O'Reilly says.
Maybe it's her play that leaves them speechless. O'Reilly scored 136 goals in four seasons for East Brunswick and was a three-time All-America. She had 21 goals and 13 assists in 18 games with the U.S. under-19 team that won the world championship last summer. Last March, at age 17, she debuted with the full national team at the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
Heather was a toddler dribbling on the sideline at one of her three older brothers' soccer games when a coach stopped parents Andrew and Carol and said, "She's really going to do something someday." That someday is now. Her ball handling draws comparisons to that of Mia Hamm, international soccer's alltime leading scorer, and her speed is likened to that of Tiffeny Milbrett, the third-highest scorer in U.S. women's history. O'Reilly is quick to rebuff the comparisons. "I want to be my own player," says O'Reilly, who'll play college ball for powerhouse North Carolina next year. "What they did will never be done again."
O'Reilly gives her elders respect and receives their admiration in return, though die veterans aren't above having a little fun at her expense. In Portugal last March, O'Reilly was late to a team breakfast. When the players hit the field, Heinrichs lined them up for sprints. She blew die whistle, and O'Reilly, who's been timed at under five seconds for the 40, took off—too fast to notice that her teammates had stopped running after two or three yards. When O'Reilly jogged back, Heinrichs put her arm around her and asked, "Do you know why they did that?"