Thursday, December 10, 2009
Updated: December 11, 11:49 AM ET
Breaking down the men's College Cup
CARY, N.C. -- It was a blustery, sunny day at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., as the men's College Cup competitors ran through drills on fields adjacent to the weekend's main stage. Once again, ACC teams abound, having claimed three of the final four spots. Or, as Akron coach Caleb Porter joked, "We appreciate the ACC inviting us into their conference."
The Zips generally had on their business faces as they fielded questions, though, perhaps because they're arguably feeling the most pressure: entering as the undefeated No. 1 seed and vying to become the first men's soccer team in 35 years to go undefeated and win a national championship.
But to do so, they have to face perennial semifinalist North Carolina (ESPNU, Friday at 7:30 p.m.). The Tar Heels hope to have the same fortune as the UNC women's soccer team, which claimed its 21st national championship Sunday in College Station, Texas.
ACC foes Wake Forest and Virginia (ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPN360.com, Friday at 5 p.m. ET ) will battle in the first semifinal match.
Team coaches and player reps weighed in Thursday on the weekend's competition. Here are some of their thoughts as we move into the College Cup.
No. 3 WAKE FOREST (17-3-3) vs. No. 2 VIRGINIA (17-3-3)
5 p.m. ET | ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN360.com
Virginia at a glance: Coach George Gelnovatch has preached one word in particular to his players this season: grind. He cites their tough wins in the early part of the season as reactive rather than proactive, noting, "Our mentality in the first half of the season really had to be to dig our heels in and make sure the other team doesn't score."
Fast-forward to October and the shift of freshman scoring sensation Will Bates to forward, and things began to change.
"He was playing more of a wide position for us, and it was a conscious decision [to move him]," Gelnovatch said. "It was about that time that things started to get a little easier for us. It didn't happen overnight. It was game by game."
Bates, who was selected to the ACC All-Tournament team, the All-ACC second team and the ACC All-Freshmen team, leads the Cavs with 25 points and 12 goals on the season. Although he admits that initially the switch was tough, clearly he has recovered. The Cavaliers are outscoring opponents 35-7 and have shut out their past 11 opponents.
Wake Forest at a glance: Coach Jay Vidovich says he thought the media were "full of crap" earlier this year for awarding the Demon Deacons a top-5 preseason ranking. With nine players lost to graduation, the bench looked bare.
"We were a decimated team, very young and inexperienced," Vidovich said.
But there's little athletes love more than adversity, and thanks to the senior leadership of Zack Schilawski (leads all ACC scorers with 11 goals, 27 points on season) and the net-stopping dives of Akira Fitzgerald, the Deacs are making their fourth straight College Cup appearance. And for those with some sort of memory loss, Wake also took home the title in 2007.
"As a senior class we're pretty experienced," senior midfielder Austin da Luz said. "We've seen just about all there is to see in college soccer. I think bringing the young guys along is just more of us acting like we've been there and showing composure in difficult situations."
Most recent matchups: Virginia emerged victorious in the first battle this season with a 1-0 victory. Their second game on Nov. 13 was a defensive stand-down resulting in a 0-0 tie. Vidovich said his team is more compact now, defending with more urgency and finding better ways to attack the ball.
"They defend the best in the country," Vidovich said of the Cavs. "It's going to be a tremendous thing for us to try and break that down."
No. 5 NORTH CAROLINA (16-2-3) vs. No. 1 AKRON (23-0-0)
7:30 p.m. ET | ESPNU
North Carolina at a glance: It's been a good decade for the Tar Heels, who since 2000 have reached three College Cups, won a national title and advanced to the national quarterfinals five times. Seventeen of Carolina's 24 all-time victories in NCAA tournament games have come in the past 10 years. Last year, the Heels faced then-top seed Wake Forest in the semis -- and won.
The crowd Friday should be in the Heels' favor, as they're the closest team to Cary geographically and boast three Cary natives on the roster.
"We think a bunch of students will come over, and we have a lot of support in Chapel Hill," senior Zach Loyd said.
Still, the Heels face a mighty challenge against the Zips.
"On both sides of the ball, they're very effective," coach Elmar Bolowich said. "Their transition into defense is very quick. They are very committed to trying to prevent the other team from going into counterattacks or getting open looks at the goal."
Akron at a glance: The Zips have been all about setting records this season. They already have surpassed school marks for overall wins and consecutive wins in a season, as well as recording 16 straight shutouts in their 23-0-0 march.
Coach Porter calls the undefeated record a "nice little sidebar" to appearing in the semifinals.
"We feel like we've accomplished a lot, but obviously we're here for our ultimate vision," Porter said, "to win the national championship."
Akron lacks the advantage of the other three teams in having faced the others in the regular season, but, as Porter points out, "People may be putting us as the underdog, and the ACC has earned right to say they are the top conference, but our players believe in what we can do. We won't take the field scared but with respect because those are very good teams."
Porter also cautions against labeling his own team an "overnight" success story. In fact, the Zips have won or shared in 12 regular-season MAC titles, including each of the past five seasons. Guided by the steady foot of sophomore forward Teal Bunbury, the 2009 MAC Player of the Year and the nation's leading scorer, they hope to finish undefeated in North Carolina. The Zips last went undefeated in the regular season in 1968, only to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Most recent matchups: The last time the Zips and Tar Heels faced off was in 2007 at the Wake Forest adidas Classic, where UNC recorded a 3-0 victory. At the Carolina Nike Classic in 2002, the Tar Heels posted an overtime win over Akron. Before that, the teams battled to a tie in an in-season tournament in Columbia, S.C., in 1982.
But as Bolowich points out, history beyond this season doesn't matter much.
"You can throw that out the window," Bolowich said of the teams' previous meetings. "Akron is a different team now than they were two or three years ago.
We are facing a team that knows what they are doing."
And to those who question MAC-level competition compared with the caliber of the ACC, Bunbury has an answer. "If there are doubters, we're here to perform, and they can watch us and see what we're made of."