DURHAM — The Tar Heels are coming. The Tar Heels are coming.
One of the most storied teams in the sport, the University of North Carolina men’s soccer team, takes on the University of New Hampshire in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday at 2 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium.
The Wildcats have an overall record of 16-1-2 and earned their first-ever seed at No. 16 and thus had a bye through the first round.
North Carolina, 11-6-2, advanced to the second round past Loyola Maryland on penalty kicks (4 to 2) on Thursday night at home. The teams were scoreless through two overtimes.
“It’s definitely a sense of excitement among the group,” said grad student Jacob Gould of Exeter. “It’s a rewarding feeling knowing the work we’ve put in during the season has paid off.”
The Tar Heels have been where the Wildcats strive to go. This is their 28th appearance in the NCAA tournament and 10th in the last 11 years.
North Carolina advanced to the College Cup — the semifinals and finals of the NCAAs — for the ninth time in the 2020 season, which was played last spring.
“This is a team that went to the College Cup last year and didn’t lose much from that,” said UNH coach Marc Hubbard. “They definitely know how to win in these moments. They have confidence and belief.”
The Tar Heels have won a pair of NCAA championships — in 2001 and 2011. Current coach Carlos Somoano was in his first season in 2011.
Hubbard, a native of Durham, has never been shy about the goals for the program since taking over in 2015.
“Our sights have always been on getting into the College Cup — the Final Four — that’s where our focus has always been,” Hubbard said.
Playing for the school, community and state are part of the mission as well: The Wildcats have drawn well all season and had lively crowds of 2,455 for an America East semifinal win over UMBC and 3,403 for Sunday’s title game against Vermont.
“The environment at home games is just something to be in awe of and really appreciate,” Hubbard said. “I think it’s a really smart soccer fan base. I think they pay attention and I think they’re really proud of what we’ve done. We’re really proud to represent them and bring something special to New Hampshire and put New Hampshire on the national map.”
The Wildcats make their fifth straight appearance and sixth overall in the NCAAs on Sunday and aim to make a nice run in the event.
They made it to the third round in 2017 with a win over Fairfield at home and advanced past Dartmouth on penalty shots in the second before falling to eventual national runner-up Indiana, 2-1.
That season was like this one in that the Wildcats did not win the America East tournament and its automatic bid to the NCAAs, but rather grabbed an at-large spot. UNH won America East titles in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Vermont knocked off the Wildcats, 1-0, on Sunday in Wildcat Stadium for the league championship. Villanova eliminated Vermont from the NCAAs in Burlington on Thursday night.
“I don’t think there’s any lack of motivation coming off of the last performance,” Hubbard said. “I think we’ll be up for it.”
North Carolina was in a bit of trouble in mid-October. The Tar Heels were unranked and fell to 7-5-1 overall and 2-4-0 in the ACC with a 2-0 loss to Louisville. They then ripped off wins over No. 15 Loyola Marymount, No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 11 Notre Dame in the last 10 days of the regular season.
A win over Syracuse in the first round of the ACC tournament and 2-1 loss to Clemson in the quarterfinals preceded the NCAA opener.
Goalkeeper Alec Samir made three saves in regulation and overtime against Loyola and back Filippo Zattarin had a block and then scored one of the team’s penalty kick goals. Samir stopped a pair of penalty kicks and North Carolina advanced on PKs, 4-2.
Tega Ikoba leads the Tar Heels with six goals and Santiago Herrera and Cameron Fisher each have five.
“They’re a team that doesn’t give up a lot of chances,” Hubbard said. “We’ve got to be ready for a tight game. We’ve got to be real smart with where we give the ball away and how we create chances, so we don’t get countered. They’re very athletic team, especially in wide spots, and can attack very quickly with a lot of open space so if we’re being casual with the ball in our possession or not being in good positions in their possessions, that can aid in their ability to get some very dangerous chances.”
UNH and North Carolina each have 11 shutouts out of 19 games.
Tola Showunmi leads the Wildcats with 11 goals and Paul Mayer, Linus Fallberg and Rory O’Driscoll have six each. Gould, Johann van Knebel and Eli Goldman have three goals apiece.
The Wildcats are ready to go.
“It feels great, obviously,” O’Driscoll said. “First time in program history to be seeded and have a second-round home game. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
The bye let the Wildcats watch while North Carolina played on Thursday night, while the Tar Heels had to travel and hit the road to an unfamiliar spot with a quick turnaround.
“Home field advantage at its finest,” Hubbard said. “They’re coming off short rest. That’s why we want the bye. It’s why we’ve worked hard to have this advantage. Now we’ve got to make sure we go out there and perform well.”
The winner of the New Hampshire-North Carolina game advances to the third round and will play the winner of the St. John’s at Oregon State game, which will be played Sunday night. Oregon State is the No. 1 seed in the tournament.