Dec. 4, 2009

D-I Notebook: Boys In Blue Becoming Elite, Too

By Neil Amato
Special to

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina has played in the NCAA men's soccer quarterfinals five times this decade. But the two previous times the College Cup was in sight -- and in the Tar Heel State -- Carolina faltered.

Not this time, with the Final Four scheduled just down the road in Cary, a short intrastate drive.

No. 5 national seed UNC broke through with two second-half goals and held off upstart Drake 2-1 Friday night. The Tar Heels played three home games in this season's NCAA tournament. Their trip from Fetzer Field to the College Cup is all of 22.6 miles.

North Carolina (16-2-3) will play the winner of Saturday's Tulsa-Akron quarterfinal in next weekend's College Cup.

"I think it's just great that finally we can make it in," coach Elmar Bolowich said. "We were in the same situation twice. Both times in the quarterfinals, both times lost at home. Finally, now we broke the ice, and we're just delighted."

The 2000 College Cup was in Charlotte, and UNC lost at home in the quarterfinals. Same thing in 2005, when the College Cup was also in Cary.

Instead, the Tar Heels are headed back to the College Cup for the second consecutive year, thanks to quick-strike goals from Kirk Urso and Alex Dixon about two minutes apart and a stout defense that kept this year's Cinderella off the scoreboard until less than a minute remained.

Dixon scored his sixth goal in the last seven games, breaking out of a nearly season-long slump that was partly due to injury. Bolowich stuck with him, and he's happy he did.

"With a striker, sometimes you have a stretch for six, seven games where nothing happens," the coach said. "Even at the world stage, this happens. You stick to the player and ride it out, and others have to carry the load. I think during the course of the season that's what happened to Alex. He was off his rhythm and he had some injuries, but he still played. Lately he's recovered, he's found his confidence and now he's hitting his stride."

Urso struck first on a hard left-footed shot from about 22 yards out. It was nothing compared with his first-half blast, from at least 35 yards, that beat goalie Jordan Kadlec but hit the crossbar.

"First game this year, he scored from like 40 out," Dixon said. "It's nothing new for us."

Drake, the feel-good story of the men's tournament, had won games at No. 4 seed Ohio State and Boston College in entirely different ways. The first was 1-0 in overtime. The second was 6-4, with the Bulldogs overcoming deficits of 2-0 and 3-2.

The Bulldogs (16-7-2) couldn't rally this time, though Kenan Malicevic broke through with a goal with 44 seconds remaining. Still, Drake's season will be one the players and coach Sean Holmes will never forget.

"We've come a long way, really," senior Kevin Shrout said. "It's been a great ride. The seniors that I was able to play with, I don't think I'm going over the top saying I love each and every one of them. No one really expected us to make it this far. I think we might have even surprised ourselves a bit. Going from below .500 our freshman year to the Elite Eight our senior year, it's quite a big step."

Holmes said he told the younger players the best way to honor the seniors was to surpass their success and be able to look back on them as the ones who started the Bulldogs' tradition. The program began in 1986, and last season was Drake's first NCAA appearance.

"I told our seniors ... it was a good thing to cry and be sad, but I didn't want that to overshadow the fact that they had accomplished so much in four years," Holmes said. "I think the better of the two teams won on the night. ... For us to have played 25 games and done as much on the road as we had, I don't know if you would call it improbable. But it's kind of neat."

North Carolina outshot Drake 16-6 and had an 11-1 edge in corner kicks. The Tar Heels improved to 12-0-1 this season when scoring two goals.