Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Hamm still creates buzz

At camp or in an exhibition, women's game all about Mia

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kaitlyn Buczek tentatively toyed with a soccer ball Monday morning, trying to ignore her wildly thumping heart and parched mouth.

The 11-year-old glanced around Mason's Wall-2-Wall Soccer facility as the Washington Freedom-Cincinnati Ladyhawks youth soccer camp unfolded. Then she saw Mia Hamm and froze.

"She showed up all of a sudden. I kind of started messing up," Buczek said. "I mean, it's Mia Hamm."

Hamm, 31, mesmerized more than 400 campers and parents as the Freedom made their Cincinnati stop. The WUSA pro soccer players are spending part of a bye week in town, and will play the Ladyhawks tonight in a sold-out exhibition game at West Carrollton High School.

For the world's most recognized women's soccer player, Monday's hoopla was business as usual. Autograph-seekers rarely gave Hamm a spare moment - and when she had one, they tried to follow her to the training room.

Kids' concentration sputtered if Hamm as much as watched her teammates teach small group lessons.

"A lot of time I feel bad because my teammates are out there trying to run a session, and you walk up and the kids stop listening," Hamm said. "But to see them get excited to go around and want autographs, and for them to want to see high level soccer like that . . . is such a highlight."

Hamm insists the local attention isn't just about her, although her popularity has yet to wane since the 1999 Women's World Cup. She attributed the Mason camp's 300-person waiting list to soccer's popularity in Cincinnati communities, coupled with the rare chance for local kids to meet WUSA soccer players.

But Ladyhawks co-owner and coach Wil Cagle said Hamm's star power is far-reaching. The Ladyhawks, an amateur team of college players, drew a season-high 573 fans against Columbus June 13. They'll play before about 4,500 fans tonight.

"It's all about Mia," Cagle said. "When you're talking about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, which was selling tickets? Not the Bulls."

As women's soccer has grown in popularity, other big-name players have taken pressure off Hamm, Freedom general manager Katy Button said. Within the Freedom, Abby Wambach, Siri Mullinix and twins Jacqui and Skylar Little have recently been media darlings.

But that doesn't mean Hamm has changed, Button said. She just has some room to breathe.

"She's as healthy as she's been in the last few years. She's as fast and sharp as she's ever been," Button said. "She's playing at the top of her game."

Hamm, who helped the U.S. women's national team defeat Ireland Sunday in Utah before flying to Cincinnati, will also be playing in Thursday's WUSA All-Star Game in Cary, N.C.

Third-year Ladyhawk Leah Miller played with the WUSA's Atlanta Beat for six weeks and knows an exhibition win tonight won't be easy. The underdog status has inspired the Ladyhawks, while the hubbub surrounding Hamm has been interesting

"At the training session today, everyone was pointing to (Hamm) when they came in. Everyone just wanted to see her," Miller said.

Hamm hopes the abundant enthusiasm of her fans - "Someone once asked me to sign their car," Hamm said with a laugh - will translate into greater soccer popularity, especially with youths.

"Hopefully," Hamm said, "they'll see themselves in 10 years playing in the WUSA."


E-mail srussell@enquirer.com

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