In December 2010, Casey Townsend and his Maryland teammates were just one step from men's soccer's College Cup. They were a No. 2 seed playing at home against No. 10 Michigan. All the advantages seemed to be in the Terps' corner.
But the Wolverines pulled the quarterfinal upset, 3-2 in double overtime. A despondent Townsend, then a junior, was left with a decision: Stay for his senior season at Maryland, or go pro?
"Losing that game did play a big role in me wanting to come back," Townsend said this week. "Just because it left such a bitter taste for me."
Townsend, a 5-foot-11 forward, could have made himself eligible for the MLS draft. His coach, Sasho Cirovski, said Townsend conceivably could have gone pro even after his freshman season because he was talented enough. That year, 2008, Maryland won the NCAA title with Townsend as a starter.
"He was only going to leave early if the situation was worthwhile," Cirovski said. "He loves the college experience, and he's very committed to his education. I also think he had some unfinished business on both a personal and a team level that he wanted to accomplish.
"He's having his best year, and the team is really benefiting from it. He's really matured on the field. He's a terrific leader of the team, and a great student. He's in business school, and you never have to worry about him off the field. Plus, he's taken his game to another level."
The Terps are ranked No. 3 and head into a Friday showdown (5:30 p.m., ESPNU) with No. 2 North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"These are the types of games you come here to play," Townsend said. "They are a really talented team, and it will be a fun game to watch if you're a fan."
If the Terps win, they seem likely to ascend to the No. 1 spot. The Tar Heels lost 1-0 Monday at Davidson. Top-ranked Connecticut lost 2-0 at West Virginia on Tuesday. And No. 4 Akron also was upset that night, as the Zips fell 1-0 at Michigan.
As mentioned, the Terps know the damage the Wolverines can do. Townsend is from Traverse City, Mich., and it was rough to have Michigan end his junior year short of the College Cup.
"We lost the last two years in the quarterfinals, and that doesn't sit well with me," Townsend said. "To be honest, though, I was on the fence for a while on if I wanted to come back. It was a pretty lengthy process of sitting down with my family and coaches and trying to figure out what was right.
"I've always wanted to finish school and get my degree, and I knew I'd be graduating in December. But I also knew I hadn't accomplished all the things I wanted to here, either. I knew that if I left, I would have a lot of regrets looking back on some of the things that I didn't do."
The Terps, who are 13-1-1, started this season with seven consecutive victories before a double-overtime tie with Seton Hall. After four more wins, the Terps had their first stumble: a 2-1 loss at Virginia on Oct. 7. What did Maryland learn from that?
"The attention to detail needed in the final 25 yards in the biggest of games," Cirovski said. "We hit three crossbars and one goalpost. Close isn't good enough in those games. Besides that, we allowed two goals. You can't go on the road in this league, give away two goals and expect to win. And we have to credit Virginia: They finished."
Cirovski felt the Terps' defense had taken a step forward with their 1-0 win Sept. 30 against Creighton. Maryland will need to be very strong defensively against what will be a ticked-off group of Tar Heels. North Carolina outshot Davidson 16-3 on Monday but still lost that match.
Regardless of how this season ends, Townsend can feel good about his decision to return to Maryland. Cirovski said that Townsend has become an even stronger finisher and has made the most of his time in college. Townsend has scored 12 goals thus far in 2011, just ahead of John Stertzer's 11 for the team high.
"My mentality every game is that I expect to score; that's the kind of mindset you have to have," Townsend said. "I'm looked to as the leader of this team, and that's healthy in a lot of ways. You know the younger guys are looking at your example. It helps me in all areas of my life."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.