191114-spt-unh-ROY_2-4311

UNH’s Josh Bauer, of Bedford, right, goes for a header against UMass Lowell’s German Fuentes during the Wildcats’ 3-0 win in an America East semifinal at Wildcat Stadium in Durham last Wednesday.

DURHAM — So there stood Bedford’s Josh Bauer, the University of New Hampshire’s standout junior defender, in the middle of the field in Wildcat Stadium on a cold Saturday night in mid-November, proudly wearing his just-acquired America East championship swag and talking matter-of-factly about what’s to come for the Wildcat soccer team.

“I think this team is capable of going to the Final Four and even further than that,” Bauer said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of discipline and a lot of preparation to get there, but I think we’re definitely capable of doing it.”

The Final Four. The College Cup. The final round of the NCAA championships, to be contested this year from Dec. 13 to 15 in Cary, N.C.

Why not New Hampshire?

It’s a message UNH coach Marc Hubbard, who grew up in Durham, has been delivering since coming back to lead his hometown team heading into the 2015 season.

Hubbard put the goal on the table as soon as he arrived: He wanted the Wildcats competing for a national title.

The Wildcats are back in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season and take on Fairleigh Dickinson University in a first-round match on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Wildcat Stadium.

The winner of Thursday’s game advances to the second round to face No. 10 seed Virginia Tech on Sunday at 4 p.m. in Blacksburg, Va.

The Wildcats had never won an America East tournament title before Hubbard took over the program. Saturday’s 1-0 win over Hartford gave them back-to-back league championships. Prior to Hubbard’s arrival, they had been to one NCAA tournament in their history, way back in 1994.

Now making the NCAAs is the expectation. The culture, the attitude, have been adjusted.

Take Saturday night as an example.

“You’re not like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the pinnacle,’” said Hubbard, standing several paces away from Bauer. “You’re thinking. ‘All right, this is what it’s supposed to be and we now have set ourselves up again to do well in the tournament.’ Every year you’re slowly building towards it, the culture, the group sort of expects it, works towards it, understands what it’s like and starts to believe this is what we want and earned.”

The process evolves and this season the Wildcats have looked to punch up their offense a bit, while keeping the defense tight.

“We’ve always been defensively stingy,” Hubbard said. “We talked early on in the year about trying to create more attacking chances and goals and how you do that. . . . If you’re comparing ourselves with the Final Four teams, we’re always there from a defensive standpoint and that’s what it’s going to take to get to the Final Four, to be defensively stingy. But you’ve got to create enough chances and be timely in your finishing and that’s what we have to do.”

The Wildcats are 14-1-3, the best record in program history, and have scored 37 goals in their 18 games, just a tick over two per game, up from 1.39 goals a game in 2018 and 1.45 in 2017.

They’re looking to benefit from their NCAA experiences the last couple of years as well. In 2017, they learned they can play with anyone. UNH beat Fairfield at home in the first round and beat Dartmouth on the road and then fell to No. 2 Indiana, 2-1, in the Round of 16. Indiana went on to lose in the title game to Stanford in two overtimes.

“We were down in Indiana and we felt we should have beat them,” said midfielder Kyle Brewster of New Hampton, a graduate student. “A huge school like Indiana that has had so much success in the past. To be on that level with a little school like New Hampshire, who in the past hasn’t been on that stage. It’s just awesome to see the growth of the program.”

Last season taught another lesson. UNH earned an NCAA first-round home game for the second straight season, but fell to Colgate 1-0.

“Especially after last year, we feel we have something to prove,” Brewster said. “We want to go deep into the NCAA tournament. Lot of positive thoughts going in.”

The Wildcats savored Saturday night’s win, but were not thrilled how they played. “This is great,” Hubbard said. “But there’s bigger things ahead and we want to make sure we refocus ourselves quickly and come out and perform well in the tournament. Enjoy the moment. This isn’t an easy thing to do obviously. But you’ve got to have a short memory. I don’t think we necessarily played great tonight. That’s how I feel.”

There’s more work to be done.

“We’ve got to regroup and mentally get ready to make sure we don’t have a repeat performance (of last year),” Hubbard said. “I thought it took about 25 minutes to get into that game last year when there’s really no reason for that.”

And yes, Bauer, who scored the lone goal early — with a header on a pretty feed from Brewster — in the championship game last Saturday night, knows how it sounds when he talks about the Wildcats making a long run in the NCAA tournament.

“It sounds cool,” he said. “If you had asked me if I’d have been in this spot coming in as freshman, I’d have told you no way. Hard work and belief and buying in and everyone working together for a common goal can take you amazing places and I’m really excited for it.”

It should also be noted that while the program may have had limited experience with the NCAA tournament until a few years ago, Hubbard has plenty. He took Southern New Hampshire University to the NCAA Division II championship in 2013.

“He’s done it at the D-II level and we’re confident he can do it at this level,” Bauer said. “We’ll see what happens this year.”