(Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When Heather O’Reilly joined the North Carolina Courage through a trade in 2018, Meredith Speck couldn’t resist telling her how much she looked up to the World Cup champion 10 years earlier, when Speck was playing youth soccer.

O’Reilly, a longtime midfielder with the U.S. women’s national team, helped establish a standard of excellence in North Carolina. During the two years she was on the team from 2018-19, the Courage won back-to-back NWSL championships and NWSL Shields.

With O’Reilly now retired and in the broadcasting booth, calling her first game as an analyst for North Carolina’s home opener Wednesday night, Speck and the other Courage veterans are carrying on the winning tradition. The team enters the regular season as the winningest club in the NWSL after defeating the Washington Spirit in the Challenge Cup final earlier this month.

Even now, Speck looks up to O’Reilly, influenced by her commitment to putting forth 100 percent effort at all times.

“I think sometimes people think it’s cool to not try your hardest, because if you’re not trying your hardest, then you can’t necessarily fail,” Speck said. “And what I love so much about Heather is she’s never too cool to work her hardest, and if she trains her hardest every day and doesn’t make the lineup, that’s just not embarrassing for her.”

Speck has been with the Courage since 2017, but she hasn’t always been a consistent starter. In four seasons with the club, excluding Challenge Cups, the midfielder has started 12 of the 45 games in which she’s played. But the Courage are a winning team not only because of the players they field on game day. Speck and her teammates fight for their starting spots in training.

“Game day is one day a week, and the other five days of training are so imperative to preparing the team,” she said. “So for myself, I’m not necessarily looking at preparing for a game in that moment — I’m looking for, how can I be my best every day? Because every day that I’m my best, my teammates are going to be able to be their best and whoever gets to go on the field, whatever 11 that is, they’re going to be the most prepared. If the team wins, we all win.”

The Courage are known for their player-driven, highly competitive culture. Speck, tied with teammate Abby Erceg as the winningest field players in the NWSL, sets the example for the younger players. She cited rookie midfielders Haleigh Stackpole and Frankie Tagliaferri as standard-bearers of that mentality in training.

“Everyone needs a Meri Speck,” said Courage head coach Sean Nahas. “She’s a massive glue piece for us. She’s a piece that keeps everything together. She’s that lightheartedness but focus as well. She’s a true pro, and I say that because for five years she never saw the field, but Meri never complained. Meri never lost her way. She never thought, ‘I’m not coming back because I don’t approve of my role.’”

Speck, 29, is part of a Courage veteran group that includes Erceg, Debinha, Carson Pickett, Denise O’Sullivan, Merrit Mathias, Katelyn Rowland, Kaleigh Kurtz and Ryan Williams. They have had to ramp up their energy since the Challenge Cup ended on May 7, helping the team overcome a stretch that included a seven-player COVID-19 outbreak and a postponed match against Gotham FC. With smaller numbers at practice, they’ve focused on specific parts of their game and kept the intensity high.

After dropping their regular season opener 2-1 to Angel City FC, the Courage are riding the momentum from their Challenge Cup win into Wednesday’s match against the Orlando Pride. Their early success came as a surprise to some people after all of their roster changes in the offseason, including losing U.S. women’s national players Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis in trades with the Kansas City Current, but the Courage had their eyes set on the trophy from the beginning.

“This team has been, from day one, super focused and ready to get down to business, and that’s why we won the Challenge Cup,” Speck said.

“We proved so many people wrong,” said Nahas.

After dealing with last September’s bombshell report in The Athletic detailing allegations of emotional and sexual abuse against former head coach Paul Riley, Nahas wanted the team to experience winning again, especially the veterans.

“It’s revitalized some players,” Nahas said of the Challenge Cup title. “It’s brought a new light to some things. It’s allowed the veterans to have a new sense of energy because they have other players around them working and representing the crest the way we want it to be represented.”

For an example of what that representation looks like, the players need look no further than Meredith Speck.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.