Taking The Long Way
Oct. 22, 2009
By Kevin Scheitrum
When Adam Gross left Austin, Texas, he left behind him a trail of accomplishment. He was a two-year captain and leading scorer on his high school team. A member of a club team that reached the U.S. Club national semifinals. A middie on his local Olympic Development team.
So when he accepted the offer to play at Charlotte, he felt, in some not terribly small way, that he had made it. That he didn't need to prove a whole lot more on the pitch.
"I'm not sure I came here to be on a great soccer team," Gross said. "I think what I wanted to do was come and hang out and get four years of college soccer."
Four years ago, when Gross and his classmates started playing for the North Carolina-Charlotte men's soccer team, expectations differed about what that exactly meant. Some, like the English-born Nathan Mathers and Luke Exley, had very little idea of even what playing soccer in the States was all about. Others, like Gross, came in and decided that they'd play and see where that'd take them.
It took them to a 9-5-5 record. Certainly not bad. But it was a year, the eighth in a row, in which a program that reached the College Cup in 1996 achieved a pedestrian sort of success, safely outside the national spotlight.
Four years later, the five seniors - or more accurately, the five survivors - of the Charlotte soccer program's resurrection now oversee a team ranked ninth in the country. It took a new coach, Jeremy Gunn, now in his third year, to push them. It took some attrition, as players who couldn't or wouldn't meet the new standards dropped off the team. And it took, above all, the willingness of a group of college students to become one mass, striving for something more.
"We all sat down and said there's no point in doing this halfway," Gross, a senior midfielder whose 16 points lead the team this year, said. "Let's end on a high note."
And now, after showing up for a guest appearance in the Top-25 last year - the 49ers' first ranking since 1998 - and dropping out at the earliest opportunity, Charlotte has climbed to ninth this year, compiling an 8-1-3 record on the way, including a 3-1 win over Wake Forest. More importantly, a team that reached the College Cup in 1996 but hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since '97 looks destined for a spot in the field.
"From the beginning, I'm not sure that [being an elite team] was a natural goal of some of the guys," Gunn said. "It was that they were going to enjoy playing a bit of soccer in college and see where that falls."
"The position we're in right now, I never could have foreseen it," said Mathers, now a senior defender and member of this week's College Soccer News team of the week. "I couldn't have imagined being ranked number nine."
From the moment Gunn - the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Coach of the Century for his work at Fort Lewis College (D-II), where he guided the Skyhawks to three national championship berths in eight years - arrived in late December of 2006, he made sure that all the varying expectations would dovetail into one: that Charlotte would again become one of the best teams in the country.
And that involved running. A lot of it.
"We'd been warned by the older boys that spring was the time when you were supposed to run," Exley, whose 14 points this year rank third on the team, said. "We just didn't realize it was gonna be that much."
But it wasn't running just for the sake of conditioning. It was running as an act of filtration. Catharsis, even. A way to shake out the demons. Gunn had inherited a team of players he hadn't recruited, a group of guys who fit his system like a cheap suit. A group of individuals, Mathers said, and Gunn was charged with melting them into a team.
So he ran them. And he boiled out the impurities, as players who just couldn't endure the new demands left the team.
"People were dropping out - he was trying to see who the strongest were," Gross said. "I wanted to prove to him and myself that I was strong enough."
"When [coach] came in, he was a little crazy," Exley said. "He definitely gets the best out of the boys. The ways didn't go down with some of the boys, but if you want to be successful you have to learn to take criticism as well as compliments. It's not always about what people see on Friday night under the lights - there's a lot of hard work that goes into that. So yeah, when he first came in, it was a bit of a shock to what we were used to."
Some, like Gross, just barely made it. But those who made it through the shock were, to paraphrase the Marines, changed forever.
"After my first semester here, I saw how little free time I got," Gross said. "You start comparing what you're doing to what everybody else is doing - going crazy and partying. You're living this structured life; you're tired all the time, stressed out. There were some moments when I was like, I don't think that this is worth it.
"But the deeper you get into it, the more you start to need it," Gross continued. "And this spring, I thought to myself, `This is the hardest I've ever had to work.' And I said to myself, `If I can make it through this alive, I know I'm worth something.'"
A team full of talent but low on ambition in 2006 graduated more than half its starters. It came back in 2007 with 12 wins and the 49ers first-ever berth in the Atlantic-10 Tournament - one of the tougher conference tournaments to reach, with room for only six of the 14 teams in the league.
"[Coach] weaned out all the bad things in the program, so even though we graduated six or seven good starters, my sophomore year we still improved. I thought we'd come in struggling," Mathers said. "There were a couple people [in 2006], maybe whose attitudes weren't right. Just stuff that was bringing things down, stuff that didn't need to be around the locker room.
Players like Exley, who barely saw the field in 2006 and considered moving back to England - "I didn't come to America to sit on the bench," he said - became fixtures over time, after surviving those first few months.
The next year, the 9ers hit the rankings, putting up another 12-win season. They reached the top-25, ending an eight year run outside the rankings, but fell out the next week.
This year, the 49ers cracked the NSCAA poll at No. 22 on Sept. 29. That same night, Charlotte ended Wake Forest's NCAA-long non-conference win streak at 46 games, downing the then-third-ranked Demon Deacons to give Charlotte its first win over a top-5 team since 1994.
"Freshman year, we expected to be one of the best teams the conference. But now we expect to be a top dog in the country," Mathers said. "Freshman year, against Wake Forest or Carolina, we'd have been scared. We'd have expected to lose. But this year, obviously with Wake Forest and coming up against anybody in the country, we're not scared anymore."
That game pushed the 49ers' unbeaten streak to seven games. Nearly a month later, they still haven't lost, extending the streak to 11 games with a 2-1 win most recently over Saint Louis on Oct. 17 - a game in which Gross and Exley both scored.
And now, with six games left in the regular season - all in-conference - the 49ers have the chance to provide a far greater trail of accomplishment, one that'll last far beyond this year.
"[The legacy] is something I'm very proud of," Mathers said. "Us seniors see ourselves as the first people of Gunn's new legacy. I think we'd like to see this as something we started, and we can pass on the success we helped build to the next generations."