CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Top seeded North Carolina advanced to its fourth consecutive NCAA College Cup on Saturday as the Tar Heels used goals from Matt Hedges and Ben Speas to down visiting Saint Mary’s 2-0 before a record crowd of 5,810.
After a scoreless first half that saw the only shot on target come from a free kick by Saint Mary’s goalkeeper Doug Herrick, the Tar Heels came out firing in the second half. Less than eight minutes after the intermission a scramble in the box ended with Rob Lovejoy firing a shot off a diving Gael defender that deflected out for a corner kick.
Kirk Urso stepped to the corner flag and delivered an out-swinging ball that Hedges ran upon. The senior defender delivered a header toward the far post that Herrick and the Gaels were unable to reach as the Tar Heels grabbed a 1-0 lead.
The goal was Hedges’ sixth of the year, four of which have come in the last eight games. The assist was Urso’s 24th of his career and seventh of the season.
The Tar Heels struck again in the 65th minute when Billy Schuler fed a pass along the turf to a cutting Speas. The junior forward touched the pass around a Saint Mary’s defender and corralled the ball in a one-on-one position with the Gaels’ goalkeeper. Speas curved a shot around the goalkeeper that found the back of the net to give Carolina a 2-0 advantage.
The Heels would hold off a Saint Mary’s charge over the final 25 minutes of action to claim their 20th win of the year.
The first half saw the teams attempt to figure each other out as neither team was able to hold possession before the Tar Heels started connecting passes and forcing the Gaels to clear out several balls that found their way into the defensive third.
The Tar Heels were unable to register a shot on target but outshot the Gaels by a 4-3 margin. The best opportunity of the half came in the 43rd minute when the Gaels earned a free kick 10 yards from midfield. Herrick took the free kick for the Gaels and kicked a ball that continued to float towards the goal forcing goalkeeper Scott Goodwin to punch the free kick over for a corner.
After the Tar Heels jumped out to the 2-0 lead, they continued to pressure the Gaels looking for a third goal but the Gaels countered and nearly cut the deficit in half in the final 10 minutes of play.
Justin Grider forced Goodwin into three saves in the dying minutes of play, including in the 86th minute when Trevor Newquist had a header blocked and Grider followed with a header of his own that Goodwin snatched.
The final minute almost saw the Tar Heels sneak in another goal as a Kirk Urso corner kick was deflected out to Mikey Lopez who ripped a shot that was blocked. Urso jumped on the rebound and lofted a ball to the far post but Herrick made his fifth save of the night.
The win improved Carolina to 20-2-2 on the year. The 20 wins are the most for a Tar Heel squad since the 2001 group posted 21 en route to the national championship. The 20 wins also make head coach Carlos Somoano just the third coach in NCAA history to win at least 20 games in his first year as a head coach as he joins Chuck Clegg (1982) of San Diego State and Mitch Murray (1991) of Santa Clara to accomplish the feat.
The more than capacity crowd of 5,810 set a new men’s soccer attendance record at Fetzer Field by more than nearly a 1,000 fans. The previous record was 4,825 when the Tar Heels faced Duke earlier this season.
The NCAA College Cup appearance will be the fourth in a row for the Tar Heels and sixth overall in school history as the 1987 and 2001 teams also advanced to the national semifinals.