Soccer, not hoops, is king in Durham

To North Carolina fans, incredible comebacks are nothing new. They just usually come in basketball, not soccer.

But the Tar Heels put together one of the best finishes in NCAA men’s soccer history on Friday night when they overcame a 2-0 deficit in the last 10 minutes of regulation to capture a 3-2, four-overtime win over Stanford. They’ll meet St. John’s today at 1 p.m. on ESPN in the College Cup final.

Hylton graduate David Stokes, a sophomore defender who rarely approaches the opponents’ net, contributed on the game-tying tally when his header hit the crossbar and set up a Matt Crawford goal. Crawford’s goal came in the 82nd minute after David Testo had scored in the 81st.

On a campus in dire need of a little sporting happiness (with the pride and joy of a men’s basketball team at 1-4 heading into today’s game against Binghamton), UNC soccer has provided it. In the quarterfinal round, a home crowd at Fetzer Field watched the Heels win on an own goal in the 126th minute against Fairleigh Dickinson.

Then in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, they won in the 136th minute on a goal by Mike Gell. He had missed a penalty kick that could’ve won the game late in regulation.

Suddenly, UNC is Soccer U. The women lost 1-0 in last weekend’s NCAA final to Santa Clara, but their success is well-documented. While the Tar Heel women have given us Mia Hamm and much of the U.S. national team, the men had never made a final until this year. They thought last year would be their year, as they entered the NCAA tournament ranked first in the nation.

“We are certainly happy to be here,” said North Carolina Elmar Bolowich, a German native who served for two years in the Luftwaffe in an earlier stage in his life. “We had a tough stretch in the playoffs; however, we made it through and had a fantastic year.

“Coming back from last year, we fell short in the quarterfinals. We ultimately wanted to be in Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, but Indiana had a say in that. This year we made a strong run at the end of the season to make it happen for our guys and our team and our program to be here.”

Instead of staying in their home state for the final four, UNC’s playing at Crew Stadium, the city of Columbus’ stadium that was built specifically for soccer.

Now the Tar Heels (20-4-0) are flying as high as the Luftwaffe, while Matt Doherty’s basketball team is grounded with a group in which Kris Lang and Jason Capel are the best players. Duke, Maryland and Virginia are carrying the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top 10 banners on the court.

It’s not that the ACC can’t play soccer. Clemson (1984, 1987), Duke (1986) and Virginia (1989, 1991-94) have all won NCAA crowns. UNC’s women have won 16 of the last 20 titles. It could be the Carolina men’s turn today.

“We wanted our women to win last week, so we could both do it in the same year,” Stokes said. “It would’ve been great for the school and for everyone involved.”

Even without the women’s title in the bag, soccer has become a focal point in Chapel Hill. On one of the wide variety of Carolina blue-clad Websites, a columnist advised fans to ignore the basketball today and make sure they watched all of the soccer game.

He definitely has a point. Without Joseph Forte and Brendan Haywood (who has helped spark the Washington Wizards’ current five-game winning streak), the team in the Dean Dome has struggled with its defense and its timely shooting. Stokes and his teammates have no problems in either of those areas.

“I’d say defense becomes even more important as the season goes on,” Stokes said. “If you get in an overtime situation and play four 15-minute periods, one team’s probably going to get tired and make a mental error.”

So far, that team’s been whoever’s playing Carolina.

Lacy Lusk is a staff writer for the Potomac News &Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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