GERMANTOWN, MD. – In sports, the only thing more difficult than winning a championship is trying to defend it the following season.
The Maryland Terrapins showed the college soccer world just how hard defending a title is these days, as the No. 2 team in the country dethroned the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels 2-1 in Sunday’s ACC Championship Final at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
“It means everything to me,” said Terps forward John Stertzer on winning the conference championship in his final collegiate season. “As a senior we’re leaders on this team and it means a lot to us, but this was a whole team effort from the freshman to the seniors.”
Maryland became the first team to score more than one goal on the defensively dominant Tar Heels since the 2011 ACC Semifinals. The UNC defense conceded just its fifth and sixth goals of the season in Sunday’s conference championship, the first a Dakota Edwards strike off a Dan Metzger corner only 10 minutes into the game and the second coming off the foot of Schillo Tshuma in the 62nd minute.
“This was one of the great moments in our soccer history because it’s the first ACC Championship we’ve won in the state of Maryland,” said Terps head coach Sasho Cirovski on winning the trophy at the SoccerPlex, just a short bus ride away from their home field. “I’ll cherish this one forever and I think our alumni and fans will as well.”
“It means a lot to me to bring [the tournament] to this area. I’ve been here 20 years, I love this place and you saw the turnout today, how much people respect college soccer,” continued the veteran coach. “This was a better atmosphere than last year’s College Cup.”
For UNC head coach Carlos Somoano and his team, which consistently brought to the table one of the best defenses ever in college soccer, the loss was especially hard. Tar Heels goalkeeper Scott Goodwin said after Friday’s win over Virginia that winning an ACC title was as important to them as winning the NCAA title, but unfortunately for the UNC program a two-trophy season was not in the works this time around.
“We just got beat, we lost too many individual battles,” said a disappointed Coach Somoano. “It adds up over the course of a game and from a tactical standpoint everything just got thrown out then window.”
“Giving up an early goal, and then trying to come back against Maryland in what was basically home-field for them made it a tough hill to climb.”
From the opening minutes of the match, it was clear that the Terrapins, playing in front of a packed SoccerPlex full of Maryland Red-and-Black, were in control of things.
In the opening minutes of the first half, Maryland’s attack controlled the match, testing the Tar Heel defense and goalkeeper Scott Goodwin. The Terps capitalized in the 10th minute when freshman defender Edwards scored his first career goal off a Metzger corner kick following a long possession in the Tar Heel box.
“What was really special was for Dakota to be able to put the ball in the net,” said Cirovksi on Edwards’ first career goal, which came at the most opportune time possible for Maryland. “The guys really picked him up after Friday night and he responded well, I’m really proud of him.”
“He’s been great all year and I think today just highlights how good he’s been,” said junior forward Patrick Mullins, who after the match was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament. “I give all the credit in the world to him,” he continued in praise of his freshman teammate.
Maryland would continue to keep pressure on the UNC defense as the opening period wore on and the Terps racked up six first half shots to the Tar Heels’ one. However, despite conceding the early goal the top-ranked Tar Heel back line would dig in and manage to hold their ground going into the break, trailing 1-0.
Once national champion coach Carolos Somoano’s halftime adjustments were made, it was time for UNC to go on the attack in the second period. In the 61st minute, Rob Lovejoy gave the Tar Heels their best chance at an equalizer, re-directing a shot which twisted away from Maryland goalkeeper Keith Cardona, but several feet wide of the right post.
Moments later, Tshuma found nylon to double the Terps’ lead and all but seal UNC’s fate. From there, the Terps began using the clock as their close ally as they have done so well all season long closing out tough games.
Lovejoy and UNC would not go away quietly, as the junior forward netted his team’s only goal of the afternoon in the 86th minute from eight yards out on a feed by Jordan Gafa. Four and a half tense minutes later, it was the Terps celebrating another conference title.
“We set three goals this year: We wanted to be ACC regular season champs, tournament champs and national champs,” said senior forward John Stertzer after the match. “So far we’ve accomplished two of our goals.”
By winning the conference tournament against one of the best teams in college soccer, the Terps secured what will assuredly be a top four seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, meaning they will play at home until the Final Four in Hoover, Alabama.
“This was a magical day for the good of college soccer and it means a lot to me,” said Coach Cirovski after Sunday’s ACC Championship victory. “I spend every day fighting for the good of college soccer and this is further proof that the game is grown and it’s moving in the right direction, and that makes it even more special for me.”
For UNC, the next few days will be about re-grouping and coming out strong for the College Cup, for which the Tar Heels will expect to be one of the top eight to 10 overall seeds.
Both the Tar Heels and Terps will find out their College Cup fates on Nov. 12 when the NCAA holds its annual selection show at 5:30 p.m.