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Nov. 13, 2011
By: Rob Daniels, for theACC.com
CARY, N.C. - The North Carolina men's soccer team has made a nice living off its defense lately, but the Tar Heels are apparently not precluded from putting the ball in the back of the net.
Ben Speas, who had scored twice all season before Sunday, delivered two goals and assisted the third as top-seeded UNC defeated Boston College 3-1 to claim the program's third ACC Tournament championship. Speas assisted Carlos McCrary and knocked in a 40-yard free kick in a five-minute span of the first half for the Tar Heels (16-2-2), who have allowed only two goals in an ongoing six-game winning streak.
"I'm very proud of our team because Boston College was an outstanding team and they're going to do very well in my opinion in the NCAA tournament," said UNC's Carlos Somoano, who became the first coach to win the conference title in his first year on the job. "They gave us a great game today. We hadn't had to deal with a team coming at us that much this season."
The Eagles, seeded seventh in the tournament while rated seventh nationally in the most recent RPI, made a frenzied charge, generating four solid scoring chances in the final 20 minutes. North Carolina goalkeeper Scott Goodwin repelled three of them with solid saves.
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Both teams can reasonably anticipate first-round byes in the NCAA tournament, for which the pairings will be announced Monday.
UNC, which claimed its other titles in 1987 and 2000, didn't trail in the tournament. It jumped in front on Sunday when Speas took the ball on the right side of the box and crossed one for Carlos McCrary, who took great care to head it off the turf and in with 7:41 left in the first half.
It became 2-0 in short order on an unconventional play. Speas admitted he was simply trying to play his free kick into the box for a teammate. Any teammate. But BC goalkeeper Justin Luthy appeared to mis-time his jump, and he was unable to snare the ball.
"On those long ones," Speas said, "you want to keep it on goal just in case something like that does happen."
The Eagles unsuccessfully sought a call of interference, believing a Tar Heel had improperly obstructed Luthy's path to the ball.
The Eagles (14-5) got back in it when Kyle Bekker slammed a direct free kick off the right post and into the net from 20 yards out and with 28:35 to play. They kept the pressure on thereafter and had reason to believe they'd get the equalizer. And their persistence was impressive. They won at Maryland in Tuesday's quarterfinals, returned home, hit the road again Thursday and had a less than magnificent travel experience: four hours on the runway in Boston and two more in Baltimore.
"We've been in the semifinals the last five years, and that's a big accomplishment for a team that has (recently) come into the ACC," said Eagles coach Ed Kelly, whose team won the championship in 2007. "This does prepare you for the NCAAs. Hopefully, we'll take those lessons and make sure we are prepared."
The necessity of pushing forward created space for North Carolina's third goal, a breakaway that Speas finished off a feed from Billy Schuler less than three minutes after the Eagles had gotten on the board. Schuler, the team's leading scorer, was limited to 40 minutes over the final two games by a leg injury, but he made his time count. He delivered the game-winner in Friday's overtime win over Virginia and got Sunday's assist in his third minute on the field.
"His presence on the field changes a lot of things," midfielder Enzo Martinez said. "And his numbers speak for themselves."
Although he didn't enjoy seeing it, Kelly appreciated Schuler's excellence.
"When Billy's healthy," Kelly said, "he is a problem."
North Carolina made it a special day for outgoing athletics director Dick Baddour, who promoted Somoano from assistant coach in the spring. Baddour attended with his successor, Bubba Cunningham, who begins his tenure on Monday.
The Tar Heels said they took pride in making their rookie coach an instant success.
"He shows through everyone that what he's doing is the right thing," Martinez said. "One of the things that hit all of us hard is his confidence in himself. He told us, `I'm the right guy for this job,' and he proved it."
In prevailing at WakeMed Stadium, UNC achieved something relatively rare. It became only the eighth team to win the ACC Tournament after claiming the regular-season title outright, and it did so with an entirely new back line in which Somoano put his total trust.
"This is a reward," Speas said, "but we're not done at all."