It was an exciting championship match and a Final Four weekend that was a fitting end for the 2011 season. It goes without saying that Creighton, UCLA, Charlotte, and North Carolina all traveled to Hoover, Alabama this past weekend with the goal in mind of securing the national championship. But it also is a given that only one team can head home with the title national champions on their resumes. Charlotte and North Carolina got the chance to play for the title when the 49ers advanced past Creighton and the Tar Heels got the nod when they advanced past UCLA. Both contests were nail bitters as reflected in the fact that each required a penalty kick shootout to determine who moved forward.
North Carolina earned the coveted title of National Champions this year when they topped Charlotte 1-0 in the finals in a match that could easily have gone either way as is often the case in a national championship contest. Junior forward Ben Speas gave the Tar Heels the edge they needed to prevail in the sixty-fifth minute of play when he skillfully pushed the ball to his left in a picture perfect move across the top of the box that created just enough space for him to use his left foot to get off a shot from twenty-five yards out that dipped over the head of Charlotte’s sophomore goalkeeper Klay Davis and found its way into the back of the net.
Prior to the Tar Heel goal, Charlotte had been the aggressor for most of the match in a script that seemed to be playing out in reverse as North Carolina had been the team that most everyone thought would be putting pressure on Charlotte instead of vice versa. As would be expected, Speas’ goal seemed to take some of the wind out of Charlotte’s sails and gave the Tar Heels a much needed boost of energy. However, Charlotte soon got their legs back under them and rebounded to finish the contest with a flurry of shots on goal that reemphasized that the lads from Charlotte were in it to win it and did not want their season to come to an end. North Carolina withstood the 49er barrage with a resolve worthy of a national championship team and the fans in the stands and an audience watching the contest which was televised nationally by ESPNU was treated to a very exciting finish.
It is not easy for a team to play its way into the final four and even more difficult to win a national championship. Just ask the forty-four teams in the forty-eight team 2011 NCAA Tournament field whose seasons came to an end somewhere along the road to Hoover not to mention the large body of programs throughout the country that didn’t earn an invite to the NCAA Tourney.
North Carolina is the only team celebrating right now but at some point in the not too distant future Charlotte, UCLA, and Creighton will all realize that they had banner seasons and will be proud of what they accomplished.
Credit Carlos Somano, who became just the second coach ever to guide his team to a national championship in his first year at the helm, with a job well done. Expectations are always high at North Carolina and Somano never filched. From day one he had a plan of action for his team that the players all clearly bought into. True, Somano inherited a lot of talent but he also had significant gaps to fill and faced the often daunting challenge of merging a group of new players, including transfers Speas and Matt Hedges and freshmen Mikey Lopez, Boyd Okwuonu and Jordan McCrary, in with his returning players. This was clearly a focused and team oriented North Carolina squad.
The Tar Heels didn’t play their best game of the year against Charlotte (credit the 49ers with a job well done) but they did what they needed to do to win it and based on what they accomplished throughout the season, which included winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles, they certainly were deserving of the national championship.
Anyone who watched the championship game had to come away from it with a deep respect for the job that Jeremy Gunn has done in his five seasons at Charlotte. The student support for the program at the Final Four, which included six bus loads of Charlotte students at the championship match, was truly impressive. The Niner Nation was out in force. Charlotte played their way to the Final Four for only the second time in the history of the program. When the 49ers advanced to the Final Four back in 1996 the consensus was that the program was poised to become a regular contender on the national scene but that didn’t play out as expected. The same expectations exist now but chances are likely that the outcome will be different this time around. Gunn has put a solid foundation in place during his tenure to date that bodes well for the future of Charlotte soccer. The 2011 squad has raised the standard at Charlotte which should be a springboard for future trips to the Final Four. Charlotte and the Niner Nation will be back.
Creighton had a banner season in veteran coach Elmar Bolowich’s first year as the Bluejay head coach. The Bluejays were 21-2-1 and recorded an unbelievable nineteen shutouts. The Jays will lose five senior starters from the 2011 team but this is one of the premier programs in the country and the Creighton faithful should feel good about the future of the program with Bolowich at the helm. This is a team that is going to continue to win a lot of games. A Final Four without Bolowich on the sidelines would seem incomplete.
You have to like what a still very young UCLA team under Jorge Salcedo accomplished this year. True, expectations are always high at UCLA and the Bruin faithful are hungry for a national championship but an eighteen win season (the most since the 2003 campaign) and a 10-0-0 mark in Pac-12 play is not shabby. The Bruins had a huge 1-0 win over Louisville on the road in the Elite Eight to advance to the Final Four which showed the mettle of this squad. UCLA clearly was one of the top teams in the country in 2011 and this is a team that will challenge for the national championship once again in 2012.
All things considered, 2011 was another great season for college soccer coast to coast.