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Field of dreams

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Megan Buckingham (18) is a senior on the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team.  (Photo courtesy of chapelboro.com)

By Zach Goins

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It’s the same thing every morning. She wakes up. It all comes rushing back, even the little details.

“I was in an RV and I was on an airport strip,” Megan Buckingham said. “It was a huge windstorm and airplanes were trying to land and get out of the wind. Cars were crashing into different things. My family was there, but they left me. I don’t know why.”

She gets out of bed and writes it down, day after day.

Buckingham’s roommates were tired of listening to her dreams every morning, so they made her get the journal.

After starting her day the same way for nearly three years, Buckingham’s dreams have filled up plenty of pages.

Buckingham has lived a life defined by dreams — both real and imaginary. She vividly remembers her dreams every morning when she wakes up, but her dreams don’t end there.

The Tar Heels’ senior midfielder has always been a dreamer.

***

Growing up in Novi, Michigan, Buckingham can’t remember a time in her life without soccer. As a four-year-old, she was already showing the boys how it’s done.

“I was playing on a co-ed team and I never wanted the boys to beat me,” Buckingham said. “Since I was passing up some of the boys at that age I was like, ‘This is fun. I can do this.’”

Before long, she found herself playing club soccer and idolizing soccer superstar Mia Hamm. Buckingham dreamed of playing soccer at the University of North Carolina and one day becoming the next Mia Hamm. In some ways, a young Buckingham thought it was meant to be.

“Her name started with an M, my name started with an M,” Buckingham said. “Her last name was Hamm, my last name was Buckingham. I was like, ‘It has to be.’”

Fast-forward to 2011. As a sophomore in high school, Buckingham was on the phone with UNC head coach Anson Dorrance, well on her way to making her dreams come true.

What Buckingham intended as a call to simply express her interest in the program resulted in a scholarship offer less than 10 minutes later.

“I kind of muted the phone and I was like, ‘Mom! Dad! Oh my gosh!’’ Buckingham said. “It was right at that moment I was like, whoa, I can actually play at this level. A huge university with a really good tradition actually thinks I’m good.”

A month later Buckingham was visiting Chapel Hill. She thought back to her childhood and remembered she was destined to be a Tar Heel. Before heading back to Michigan, Buckingham committed, ready to join Dorrance’s team after she graduated in 2014.

In her first season, Buckingham started 18 of the Tar Heels’ 20 games and was named ACC Freshman of the Year. But for Buckingham, the individual awards didn’t matter, it was all about team success.

“It’s not so much being the standout and leading the team, as finding your place on the team,” Buckingham said. “For me, freshman year I did take on somewhat of a leadership role on the field, so I was kind of comfortable with that.”

***

Nowadays, Buckingham dreams of championships, and the senior midfielder wants them all.

“The biggest dream would be the national championship, but realistically we start with multiple goals,” Buckingham said. “So, regular season ACC Championship, ACC Tournament Championship, and then moving on to the NCAA Tournament.”

But so far, championships have eluded Buckingham.

After breaking her collarbone in the summer of 2015 while training with the U-20 U.S. national team, Buckingham was only able to start three games her sophomore season.

“It was a big setback I would say mentally,” Buckingham said. “Watching your team on the sidelines is probably the worst thing. We have a saying on our team, ‘The only thing worse than fitness is watching your team do fitness.’”

That year, the Tar Heels went 15-5-1, and were sent packing in just the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Buckingham worked her way back into the lineup before her junior campaign, starting each of the Tar Heels’ 25 matches and leading the team to the brink of a national championship, before falling to West Virginia 1-0 in the NCAA semifinals.

For Buckingham, getting to UNC always seemed like the hardest part of her soccer dream. Once you were there, you were guaranteed at least one championship, she thought. But after witnessing the class of 2017 become the first group to ever pass through Chapel Hill without a ring, she realized her new dream of winning a title wasn’t that easy.

“We put the pressure on ourselves for that,” Buckingham said. “It’s not so much the program, but as individual players we can look back on the history and we’re like, we need to step it up and meet those standards.”

Since last December’s defeat, Buckingham’s teammates have witnessed her stepping it up firsthand. Junior defender Julia Ashley said Buckingham has always led by example, but that it’s even clearer after being so close to a title just a year ago.

“I think she set a tone in our spring training for sure,” Ashley said. “We lost some leadership, but Megan is definitely trying to re-establish the culture we created last year so we can go further this upcoming fall.”

With one last go around coming this fall, Buckingham is set on writing her name in Tar Heel history.

“Last year’s loss was tough, because I’d never been to the Final Four, and losing on that Friday was just… heartbreaking,” Buckingham said. “Definitely motivating for this year. Most of the team is returning, we only lost five seniors, so most of the girls on the team have that motivation still burning in them and it’s a huge drive.”

***

Buckingham will graduate in December with her heart set on a new dream — playing soccer professionally. Going pro has always been one of her biggest dreams, but the methodical Buckingham has tried to take things one step at a time.

Ideally, Buckingham will be selected in January’s National Women’s Soccer League draft, keeping her in the U.S., but she said she’s open to playing overseas if that’s what it takes to keep her dream alive.

“I feel like I’m at a crossroads in my life and this time my parents aren’t going to tell me I have to go to college,” Buckingham said. “It’s my choice to pick. It’s my chance to choose where my life’s going to go. And whether that be playing professionally here or overseas or bumming it back at my parents’ house or starting a bakery, these next six months are going to be probably a rollercoaster of emotions, and I have to figure that out going into the draft.”

Should her dreams of playing professionally not work out, Buckingham has other dreams to fall back on — literally.

With a minor in creative writing, she hopes to one day write a book of short stories inspired by the dreams in her journal.

“I have a better picture of it in my head than what I can verbalize,” Buckingham said. “That’s why I think taking those prompts would be cool because you can make them into longer stories and really detail [them] to get my message across.”

Until then, Buckingham will continue to write in her journal every morning, recounting her dreams from the night before. But maybe someday soon, she’ll wake up and realize she’s done it — life is better than her dreams.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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