By Quinn Casteel
GERMANTOWN, MD – A cool and ultimately more determined defending national champion North Carolina Tarheels team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers in penalty kicks after scoreless regulation and overtime periods Friday night in the first ACC Semifinal match-up Friday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
The second-seeded and current No. 3 team in the NCAA rankings defeated the sixth-seeded Cavaliers 4-3 in the penalty shootout, which concluded with senior captain Jordan Gafa sending the winner past UVA goalkeeper Spencer LaCivita to send his team to its second consecutive ACC Championship Final.
“We stayed calm and cool for two overtime periods and found a way to win the game,” said Gafa, who has now started one short of a team-high 18 matches in his final collegiate season.
The Tar Heels defeated Boston College 3-1 in last year’s ACC title match and are back hungrier than ever, this time with a new group of players and a new identity as arguably the best defensive team ever in college soccer, having now recorded 15 shutouts in 19 matches played.
“Nothing has been given to us, and hasn’t been all year long,” said second year UNC head coach Carlos Somoano after the match. “If we don’t go out and earn it we’re going to go home the losers.”
“This is a wonderful group of guys and I’m so proud to be their coach but we’re still hungry,” he continued. “We’re so hungry right now and we want to give it our best shot,” said Somoano on trying to repeat as conference and national champs.”
As any 0-0 eventual PK match goes, Friday night’s game between UNC and UVA was what both coaches called a “dogfight” for most of the evening.
Carolina was on the attack early in the first half, using their front-to-back defensive approach to create opportunities for themselves while limiting the Cavaliers’ chances. The Tar Heels controlled possession and kept the game in Virginia’s defensive third but as time in the first half dwindled so did the number of scoring chances.
Junior forwards Rob Lovejoy and Andy Craven paced the North Carolina attack, and Craven even came within a full extension fingertip save by UVA’s Spencer LaCivita of ending the scoreless first half with just over five minutes remaining. Virginia had two late runs in the final six minutes of the half as well but their possessions came in short bursts and the teams went into the break still tied.
The second half began much like the second half ended, with neither side able to create scoring chances with much consistency. Goodwin was forced into only two second half saves and LaCivita only two as well.
As the match wore on and overtime began to look like more of a possibility, it was the Cavaliers who picked up the urgency with 15 minutes remaining in regulation. Senior forward Will Bates, whose 11 goals was a team-high and third in the conference entering the match, got behind the entire UNC team but his shot was forced wide left by pressure from the veteran keeper Goodwin.
Eventually, golden goal overtime began to seem imminent as ultimately neither side would put enough of a run together to get on the scoreboard.
In the first overtime, neither side found a golden goal or even a very good scoring opportunity. The second 10 minute extra period began with one good run from each side but ultimately penalty kicks began to seem imminent and the Cavaliers had the Tar Heels right where they wanted them.
Heading into penalty kicks, the defending national champions seemed every bit as frustrated with what transpired in the match as the dark horse No. 6 seed, which had snuck into the final group of four teams to advance to the SoccerPlex with the stunning upset over Wake Forest.
Virginia coach George Gelnovatch told Soccer Wire after the match he thought the pressure was on the Tar Heels heading into PKs and he gave his team a bid of confidence.
“When I talked to my team (heading into PKs) I said, ‘take a deep breath and relax,’” said Gelnovatch. “We were in great position and all the pressure was on them, but unfortunately we used the same guys in penalty kicks (against Wake Forest) and it was very clear, the save on Shane Cooke that he knew it was the same side Shane went the other night,” he continued.
Facing a defense which had surrendered a mere four goals all season, Gelnovatch and UVA knew going into the match that if they wanted to win they might have to do it the long, drawn-out way as they have done for much of the season.
“Most of the time these games are (very low scoring),” said Gelnovatch of the defensive mindset in the ACC Tournament. “When you get to this point, the coaches want to make sure you don’t leave yourself vulnerable so both teams were very conservative and disciplined not to get scored on. You want to try to have the other team make a mistake,” he continued.
Neither UVA nor UNC would falter their discipline or make the fatal mistake Gelnovatch was referring to, and eventually the match would come down to which goalkeeper or which shooter would slip in PK’s. To no surprise of anyone in the packed Maryland SoccerPlex, it was all-time Tar Heel shutout leader, senior goalkeeper Scott Goodwin who came through in the end.
“Him and a couple of guys I’m ready to have move on but they’re a good team,” Gelnovatch said of Goodwin, the ACC’s second team all-conference goalkeeper. “What I thought you saw tonight was two very organized teams who do something well, and were coached to do it and they both really did it, I thought Carlos (Somoano) did a great job.”
Although an ACC title will not be in the cards for Gelnovatch and the Cavaliers this season, the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes remain alive and strong. The 20th year head coach said he expects his team to be an at-large bid in the upcoming College Cup thanks to a strong schedule and a top 25 RPI.
For UNC, the determination heading into Sunday’s ACC Championship Final is remarkable. Somoano and the Tar Heel captains Gafa and Goodwin agreed that at this point in the season an ACC title is just as important as a national title.
“We believe in ourselves to get the job done, and if we don’t we’re going to run our legs dead trying,” said the defending ACC and national champion head coach Somoano.
“The fact that we’ve come so far this year with all our hard work, we really earned this,” added Goodwin. “We found a way to fight it out and our defense has been absolutely solid. It’s been solid since I’ve been here at UNC but this year was excellent and we’re looking forward to keeping that going.”
UNC will face the winner of No. 2 Maryland vs. Clemson in Sunday’s ACC Championship, which kicks off at noon at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Online tickets are still available at a steep discount at: https://tickets.mdsoccerplex.org/.