Transfers leads UNC back to Cup
Former foes Speas, Hedges help Tar Heels in tournament run
HOOVER, Ala. – Ben Speas made two NCAA Men’s College Cup appearances with Akron, last year’s national champions.
Speas, a junior, is back this season, even though the Zips did not advance to the semifinals.
|GET CAUGHT UP|
He’s now playing forward for the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels (20-2-2), who face No. 13 seed UCLA (18-4-1) on Friday in the College Cup's second semifinal.
Although still wearing No. 17, Speas is not the only probable UNC starter who spent last season wearing a different color jersey. Senior Matt Hedges -- the ACC Defender of the Year -- traded Butler blue for Carolina blue after twice earning the same defensive honor from the Horizon League.
Last Saturday, UNC used goals from both transfers in a 2-0 win against Saint Mary’s to advance to its fourth consecutive College Cup and sixth overall.
“I still cherish both a lot and want to win it for North Carolina just as much,” said Speas, an Ohio native from the Akron suburb of Stow.
Raised in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Ind., Hedges didn’t get recruited by many schools coming out of high school and opted to play for his hometown team, which he said was a great choice at the time. Hedges started 59 matches at Butler and was named a second-team All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America last season, when the Bulldogs finished 16-1-3.
“I just felt that North Carolina would have the best chance for me to get to a College Cup and try to win a national championship and obviously it worked out,” said Hedges, who has six goals in his last eight matches. “I’m so excited…just to have a chance to do that, I can’t even put into words how it feels.”
Junior forward Billy Schuler, who leads the Tar Heels with 15 goals, appreciates the scoring talents of the 6-foot-4 Hedges.
“Matt’s very dangerous in the air and whenever he’s in the box he’s a huge threat,” Schuler said. “He’s also very good with his head scoring. So whenever you can be a threat on set pieces, when you can get a goal like that, it’s so much easier for a team than just relying on having to score a goal through the run of play.”
Schuler also has high praise for an attack-minded Speas, the ACC All-Tournament MVP whom he called “a very technically-gifted player.” Speas had three assists in his first two matches as a Tar Heel and has six goals and nine assists on the season.
He starts at forward at North Carolina after coming off the bench at midfield for Akron.
“He likes to go at people but at the same time, he knows when to keep possession,” Schuler said. “He’s very dangerous.”
Speas was 2-0 against his future team while playing in 50 matches for Akron.
On Dec. 11, 2009, Speas and the eventual national runner-up Zips ended the Tar Heels’ season in penalty kicks, 5-4, in a national semifinal. In the 2010 season opener, Akron defeated UNC 3-0 at the Carolina Nike Classic.
Hedges joined the team for the spring semester and Speas followed this fall. First-year UNC coach Carlos Somoano, who spent nine years as the program’s top assistant before being promoted to the top spot, said the pair adjusted well.
“I don’t care how capable of a player you are, coming to a new program with new teammates and a new environment is tough,” Somoano said. “I’m very proud of them. They’ve done a great job.”
The Tar Heels roster looks different than last year, as six players went pro.
Only three players -- Scott Goodwin, Enzo Martinez and Kirk Urso -- were in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup at last year’s College Cup. Ten players saw action for the first time this season, including eight freshmen.
“That did help me a little bit," Hedges said. "I’m not the only new guy out there, there’s a lot of other guys I can relate to who can relate to me."
While the team is new, the College Cup experience isn’t for Speas.
“It’s been great coming to a new team and doing well, being back here at the College Cup and hoping to win it again,” Speas said.