HOOVER, Ala. – The road to the championship match of the 2011 NCAA Men’s College Cup — you could almost call it the Carolina Cup now — has been a memorable journey for both teams.
Unseeded Charlotte (16-4-4) faces top-seeded North Carolina (20-2-3) at 4 p.m. ET Sunday at Regions Park.
It’s the first championship game appearance in any team sport for Charlotte, an urban research university founded in 1946.
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In 1996 the 49ers made the College Cup and lost in the semifinals, as did the 1976-77 men’s basketball team that reached the Final Four and lost in the third-place game. The men’s golf team tied for third at the 2007 NCAA Championship.
Hometown product Owen Darby, a junior midfielder, called playing in the title match “a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.” The 49ers beat Furman, UAB, defending champion Akron, third-seeded Connecticut and No. 2 seed Creighton to get there.
“I don’t want to blink and miss anything,” Darby said. “I can’t remember another time when there’s been this kind of buzz around a sports team that is from Charlotte. It’s unbelievable — the fans, getting texts and videos from people back in Charlotte.”
It’s a two and a half hour drive from Charlotte to Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels own the 2001 men’s soccer national championship and a total of 37 NCAA national titles to its credit.
Tar Heels senior midfielder Kirk Urso has now played in four College Cups.
“This was one of the our goals that we set out at the beginning of the season and we’re focused on ourselves and what we need to do to put ourselves in the best position to win the game,” said Urso, the school leader for all-time matches played.
Saturday will be the first non-exhibition match between the two schools since the 2001 season, when UNC defeated Charlotte 3-0.
The two teams played an exhibition match in Charlotte on Aug. 21, with 4,038 fans in attendance at Transamerica Field, setting an attendance record. The game was called due to weather in the 70th minute with North Carolina leading 2-1.
“When we played them at the beginning of the season, we knew they were a good team but we weren’t looking that [far] ahead,” junior midfielder Enzo Martinez said. “Both of us are totally different teams, and we’ll just see [Sunday].”
In its first exhibition this season, UNC played Coastal Carolina. The Tar Heels won a second-round match between the two teams 3-2, scoring three times in the final 45 minutes. UNC defeated 16th-seeded Indiana, Saint Mary’s and 13th-seeded UCLA in the ensuing rounds .
“We don’t look at whether they have done something in the past or not in the past or what their name is,” UNC coach Carlos Somoano said. “We respect our opponents for the performance they put on the field.”
The two teams have faced six common opponents this season: Clemson, Coastal Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and UNC Wilmington. UNC was 6-0-1 and Charlotte 4-2-0 against those programs.