CHAPEL HILL – St. Mary’s made No. 1 overall seed North Carolina work for its 2-0 victory on Saturday evening in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship.
The Gaels contested every touch, every run, every cross, every shot, though were unable to deny the Tar Heels a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA College Cup this week at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.
This time the Heels (20-2-2) advanced to the game’s Final Four with a patient performance at Fetzer Field before a sold-out crowd of 5,810. Dressed in Parkas, sweat shirts and scarves, the record-setting crowd endured chilly conditions to watch a contest that featured aggressive offense and skilled defense.
The Heels – who own the nation’s third best scoring offense with 2.30 goals per game – were matched by a tough, agile, quick St. Mary’s defense, which held the game scoreless in the first half.
“We just stayed to our game plan,” UNC senior defenseman Matt Hedges said. “And finally broke them down.”
The Heels kept pressing and finally found the right combination up front early in the second half. In the 53rd minute, senior defenseman Matt Hedges scored the game’s first goal on a header from eight yards out.
That goal developed off the Heels’ second consecutive corner kick and senior mid-fielder Kirk Urso delivered a beautiful, high-lofted pass to Hedges, who leaned in and crashed it into the nets.
Facing a combative St. Mary’s defense, the Heels held a 3-2 corner kick advantage and outshot their opponents 4-3 in the first half, but never forced senior goalkeeper Doug Herrick to make a save. In the second half, the Heels attacked quicker in the final third and adjusted to tight coverage on corner kicks.
“I just changed my run up,” said Hedges, who scored his sixth goal of the season.
With needed breathing room, the Heels increased their attack and struck again in the 65th minute.
Taking a through pass from junior forward Billy Schuler, junior forward Ben Speas pushed ahead of St. Mary’s backline. He dribbled into the open field and found himself one-on-one against Herrick.
A quick fake left freed Speas to go right and his shot put the Heels on top 2-0. He collected his fourth goal in as many games and sixth this season.
North Carolina holds the nation’s longest active unbeaten home streak – 26 straight – and have won nine consecutive.
They enter the College Cup with the momentum of a successful regular season and steadfast post-season, having won both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles for the first time in school history.
Urso, a team captain, took the pitch for his 89th career match, tying Eddie Ababio’s career record set in 2006-10. With his team’s win, he will become the first player since Wake Forest’s Zack Schilawski to appear in four straight College Cups.
“Some of the things that we’ve experienced on this field is nuts,” Urso said, adding, “We are a family. We have bonds that can’t be broken.”
First-year coach Carlos Somoano, who was named ACC Coach of the Year, acknowledged his team’s individual and team accolades, though said they mean “nothing” in term’s of the team’s objective of winning its first NCAA title since 2001.
“It’s win or go home at this point,” he said.