National Championship or qualifying for World Cup: Florida State's Heather Payne answers which is better

Ehsan Kassim
Tallahassee Democrat

What feels better?

Qualifying for the 2023 World Cup or winning a Women's College Soccer National Championship?

Florida State senior Heather Payne is one of probably just a handful players in the world who can answer that question. And all of that has happened in the last 12 calendar months.

Payne, who has been away from the Seminoles since Oct. 1, helped Ireland qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

She will be back in garnet and gold Thursday, as No. 4 FSU (10-1-2, 6-1 ACC) hosts No. 2 North Carolina (12-3, 5-2) at 8 p.m. at Seminole Soccer Complex.

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The game will be broadcast on ACC Network and will be an important match for both the ACC standings, ACC tournament seeding and overall seeding for the NCAA tournament.

Payne scored one of four penalty kicks in the National Championship win against Notre Dame last season and was a starter for the Irish in a 1-0 win over Scotland to qualify for the World Cup for the first time for Ireland.

"Super excited," Payne said. "As a small nation we haven't qualified for a major tournament yet. Getting this major milestone is absolutely huge. We missed out on the Euros recently, so we all can't quite believe it. We're on cloud nine."

So which felt better?

It's a complicated answer for Payne.

"I don't even know how to compare that," Payne said. "They are just two completely different things. Winning a national championship is a once in a lifetime experience, but so is qualifying for the World Cup, especially when you're coming from a small country like Ireland.

"They are both things I dreamed of doing. I am just happy to say it all happened within a year of each other, which is absolutely insane. I can't even compare. They are both unbelievable. 

"Of course, qualifying for a World Cup, I can't even describe it."

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Ireland performance

There was a complicated set of things that needed to happen for Ireland to qualify, with three playoff semifinals being played around the world on Oct. 11. 

Ireland and Switzerland entered as the top seeds and just needed victories in regular time to qualify, while an Ireland win if those teams won outright would have sent the small island nation to play in another set inter-confederation playoffs next February New Zealand.

Iceland however needed extra time to defeat Portugal. Meaning the winner of Scotland-Ireland was qualifying.

Substitute Amber Barrett scored the game-clinching goal for "The Girls in Green" in the second half.

"We had so much stuff leading up to it and there were so much 'ifs' and 'buts' that depended on other results," Payne said. "We had figured out at halftime the results we needed happened, so when the final whistle blew and we won 1-nil everyone absolutely lost it. We were absolutely delighted."

Payne earned the start at striker for Ireland, but her night was finished after 66 minutes when she rolled her ankle. That paved the way for Barrett to score the game-winning goal.

"I was just absolutely over the moon," Payne said. "I couldn't really believe it."

Payne has played on the backline this season for the Seminoles and is ready to return to that role for the rest of the season.

First year FSU head coach Brian Pensky said the glee for Payne was obvious upon return.

"I'm sure the confidence was high. I think the kid was up there on cloud nine," Pensky said. "Just so elated."

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Ireland connections

Payne was not the only former National Champion for FSU on the Ireland World Cup qualifying team. 

The connections run deeper with Megan Connolly being part of the 2018 team, while Megan Campbell  was on the 2014 national championship team.

"I joked before, you can't win a National Championship unless there's an Irish girl on the team," Payne said. "I think it's great to have other FSU alums on the team and I think  it will always be like home for me here, just because of that connection."

While neither Megan was on the latest championship team, the third one in school history was not likely without their help.

"I wasn't really sure if I wanted to come to the US," Payne said. "I was trying to make that decision and I knew that Megan Connolly and Megan Campbell came here and they both had successful careers here. That's kind of when I started to think more about Florida State and they definitely influenced my decision to come here."

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On cloud nine

Pensky said Payne arrived back in Tallahassee late Wednesday night. Initially Payne did not plan on missing the match against Duke last week.

"Before she left to go to Scotland, she talked about how 'I'll be back for the Duke game, I'll be ready to play,'" Pensky said. "Meanwhile she was playing Tuesday night, the Duke game was Thursday night. 

"(I told her), 'well, we'll see. We have to protect you first.' But she was eager and hungry to get back to play. Then she qualified for the World Cup and she went to that special place called cloud nine and I don't think she was down from cloud nine on Thursday night. 

"She wasn't ready to play. She was physically and emotionally exhausted from that experience, as she should have been." 

Pensky added Payne will be nine days removed from the qualification game and should be ready to go Thursday.

In addition to the Duke match, Payne also missed the road trip the week before which included a 1-0 win over then No. 2 Virginia and the team's lone loss to Notre Dame three days later.

Payne said she watched each of the games, cheering on her teammates in spirit. She's ready to rejoin the team and play.

"I hate missing FSU games," Payne said. "It's really disappointing for me when I do miss them. But I rearing to go against Duke. But of course it would have been silly for me to play in that game with jet lag and everything. The girls got the job done and it was an absolutely brilliant game.

"I know myself, when I come back from those trips, I am so tired and I have a lot of recovery to do. I don't want to risk an injury, so I knew myself and I had to be sensible."

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Who: No. 4 FSU (10-1-2, 6-1 ACC) vs. No. 2 North Carolina (12-3, 5-2)

When/where: Thursday, 8 p.m.; Seminole Soccer Complex

TV: ACC Network

Reach Ehsan Kassim at ekassim@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Ehsan_Kassim. You can also follow our coverage on Facebook (NoleSports) and Instagram (tlhnolesports).

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