HOOVER, Ala. -- That big smile on the face of Charlotte’s Isaac Cowles in the team photo is genuine.

The senior defender said it’s always better to have fun, and he and his 49ers teammates have enjoyed nearly every minute of a season culminating with an appearance in the Men’s College Cup final.

It’s a perspective that should keep them loose Sunday when unseeded Charlotte (16-4-4) takes the field against top-seeded North Carolina (20-2-3) at 4 p.m. ET at Regions Park. After all, the 49ers are a reflection of energetic head coach Jeremy Gunn.

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“It just comes down to believing in the system that we’re under,” Cowles said.  “We’ve joined together and we’re a family.”

Gunn said that’s especially true of the partnership between Cowles and NSCAA first-team All-American Charles Rodriguez, who he brought in as center backs to start together as freshman. In the past, Gunn said it was “almost like watching a marriage grow” although this year he moved Rodriguez to left back and brought in sophomore Thomas Allen.

“They love each other, they’ll argue all different things, it’s quite comical listening to the two of them talk,” Gunn said of Cowles and Rodriguez. “I’m sure that having been in the program together for four years, they’ll be life-long friends and probably best men at each other’s weddings.”

With 15 players from North Carolina on the roster, a number of 49ers were familiar with each other before teaming up in college.

Junior midfielders Owen Darby and Donnie Smith played against each other in high school at South Mecklenburg and Charlotte Catholic, respectively. Then they became club teammates for South Charlotte Soccer Association which consolidated with the Charlotte Soccer Club to become Charlotte Soccer Academy.

“I just remember him as a really tenacious, long-haired, annoying kid that I’d play against,” Smith said. “Then when I moved to South Charlotte we were on the same team and I grew to love him as a brother.”

Darby considers it luck that both were able to play for the same program and their city.

“I think a good thing that kind of parallels between our club team and this team is that it’s a team, it’s not just a group of individuals, this is just one entity,” said Darby, who redshirted his first year with the 49ers.

That brotherhood is evidenced in the relationship between Charlotte goalkeepers.

Gunn has substituted senior backup Gavin Dawson for redshirt sophomore Klay Davis during penalty kick situations such as the quarterfinal upset of third-seeded UConn and the semifinal win over second-seeded Creighton.

“I’m glad he can come in and help the team the way in the way that he does,” said Davis, who has logged nearly 2,281 minutes in goal and sports a 0.79 goals against average. “I respect the kid and I love him to death.”

Thanks to their team-first attitude, the 49ers are one win away from a first for the Charlotte athletic program: a national championship.

Kim Whitestone, a senior associate athletic director at the school, said what Gunn has done has done with the 49ers program in five years is special.

“Coach Gunn has done an amazing job with putting this group of boys together,” Whitestone said. “They turn into animals on the field but off the field they are some of our brightest and best students and leaders on campus.”