FRANKFURT, Germany – Abby Wambach has identified a bizarre childhood basketball drill as the reason for her unique aerial skills, which have taken the United States to the final of the Women's World Cup.
As a high school hoops star growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Wambach was instructed to carry a basketball above her head in between classes in order to develop arm strength and to increase her sensory awareness above eye level.
After scoring the decisive goals in both the quarterfinal victory over Brazil and Wednesday's semifinal triumph against France with her head, Wambach attributed her outstanding ability in the air to her time on the hardwood, where she was a small forward for Our Lady of Mercy High School in Rochester.
"I put a lot of my ability to read the ball in the air down to basketball," Wambach told Yahoo! Sports. "My coach would always tell me to be aware of what was going on and to play the game at a certain height. He would even make me walk around school with a basketball above my head.
"I do seem to have a unique ability to know where the ball is going to be, and my teammates have an ability to sense where I am going to be."
Wambach's heading could be especially effective in Sunday's final, with opponent Japan a quick and skillful team but one without much height in the heart of its defense.
A high point of attack can be expected as part of USA head coach Pia Sundhage's tactical game plan once again. Wambach capitalized on perfect floating crosses from Megan Rapinoe late in extra time against Brazil and from Lauren Cheney just as France was asserting control on Wednesday.
As in each game in the tourney, Wambach is likely to start the final alongside Amy Rodriguez in attack, with Alex Morgan having replaced Rodriguez from the bench in each of the last two games.
Sundhage admitted that Wambach, who was devastated to miss the 2008 Olympics due to injury, has been inspired during this tournament despite struggling to shake off a long-term Achilles complaint.
"We have Abby and she is special and a great bonus for us to have her," said Sundhage. "She has power and timing and she makes life very difficult for other teams. It all stems from her determination and spirit."
Wambach's judgment on headers is even more impressive considering the unpredictability of the Adidas World Cup ball, which also caused problems during the men's tournament in South Africa, and has befuddled several players nonetheless with its deviation of movement.
However, with the chance to win the title just 90 minutes of action away, neither the ball nor much else is likely to give the USA many sleepless nights. Flushed with confidence, the side is a heavy favorite to lift the trophy for the first time since 1999.
Sundhage's squad came into the tournament with a world ranking of No.1 but was widely considered to be below host nation Germany and Brazil in the international pecking order. Instead, it is now firmly in pole position after taking care of Brazil itself and watching Japan dispose of the Germans in the quarterfinal.
Japan is ranked at an all-time high of fourth and cannot be taken lightly, yet it is still a far more welcome opponent than the prospect of taking on Germany and a patriotic home crowd.
The difference on Sunday, as ever, could be Wambach, the shining star who has, literally, been head and shoulders above the pack.
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- Abby Wambach