An underdog rises: The UNCW edition

McLeod Brown | Sports Editor

If you have enough motivation, and commit yourself to a cause, it’s amazing what you can accomplish. That was the logic behind the UNC Wilmington women’s soccer team this year.

In a span of 12 months, the Seahawks went from one of the CAA’s bottom-feeders to near conference champions, a drastic turnaround for a squad that couldn’t catch a break a year ago.

The 2011-2012 season was one to forget for the squad. They finished with a dismal 3-17 record, including a 1-10 posting in conference play. After the season, however, there were no drastic changes by any means. There were no player demotions or second-guessing the squad’s ability to win games. Instead, all it took was the simple task of recommitting to the squad to turn the program around.

“I think our preparation from the end of last season, to this point, from November 2011 to May 2012, was fantastic,” said Coach Paul Cairney. “I think it was more of what they did, rather than what we told them. We just asked them to recommit, dedicate themselves, and get fitter and stronger, and a lot of them did it.”

“I don’t think there were huge changes but that it was all in our mindset,” added junior Nicole Costa. “We thought, ‘If we don’t work hard in the offseason, we’re not going to get it done during the season.’ Coming through the offseason, working hard every single day, the season just kind of worked out for us.”

Over the offseason, the squad built on this rededication and made sure they put their time away from competition to proper use. Fifteen freshmen were welcomed to the team for the 2012 season. The Seahawks also brought in a new strength and conditioning coach, Mark Williams.

Nevertheless, not much was expected out of the squad from its peers, as UNCW as picked to finish ninth in the conference in the pre-season rankings.

It was all just bulletin-board material for the team.

“It was a motivating factor during the season,” Cairney said. “We referred to it several times throughout training. We were picked to finish ninth in the league, deservedly so based on 2011. At the conference banquet, none of our players got recognized and I thought Stephanie (Rose) should have been player of the year in our league. That was a motivating factor. I thought Caitlin (Hunter) was the best goalkeeper in our league but she wasn’t first team all-conference. So it was all motivation.”

And immediately from the start of the season, you could tell this was going to be a different Seahawk squad.

The team started off the year on a high note, defeating national powerhouse UNC Chapel Hill in an exhibition match, 2-0. This was followed by three straight games against nationally-ranked opponents in  #22 Virginia Tech, #3 Wake Forest, and #8 Virginia.

Against Virginia Tech, the Seahawks took the Hokies to double overtime before falling 0-1. Two days later, against Wake Forest, the team tied the Demon Deacons in double overtime, proving not only to spectators, but to themselves most importantly, that this was a different team than last years.

“I don’t think we expected to do as bad as we did in 2011,” Cairney said. “I don’t think our record reflected our team in 2011. Certain games got away from us. When you’re losing, it becomes more difficult to win, once you get in a hole. I think this year, in 2012, that was the difference. We won a few games early on, competed with some tough teams early on. We felt confident. We thought, “Hey, we beat Chapel Hill. We tied Wake (Forest). We can beat anyone.'”

The team would go on to finish the regular season with a 12-6-1 record, including a 7-3 conference mark. This qualified the team for the #3 seed in the CAA tournament, something they did not get a chance to experience the previous season.

The team’s success coincides with other players stepping up around All-CAA talent Stephanie Rose. The senior has led the Seahawks in goals each year since her freshman season, often by a wide margin. It took other players stepping up and scoring more to help the Seahawks get over the hump.

“I think a big part of it (success) is balance and how we attacked,” Cairney said. “If you look at statistically the last three years, Stephanie Rose was our leading scorer, her freshman, sophomore, and junior years. And no one else was even close to being another goal scorer so our opponent just had to stop her and they’d beat us. This year, in addition to Stephanie having a fantastic year, you get five goals from Nicole (Costa), we got eight goals from Maddie (McCormick). I think it was 14 different players scored a goal. So, we had offense from all different areas of the field.”

The conference tournament was where the team’s will truly shone through, however.

It’s rare for soccer games to go down to penalty kicks, but to have two in a row is almost unheard of. Such was the Seahawks’ first two games of the CAA tournament.

In the quarterfinal round against Delaware, it was all tied 1-1 at the end of regulation. Goalie Caitlin Hunter then came through in the top half of the fourth round in PK’s blocking Delaware sophomore Andie Arnold’s attempt. Rose’s strike in the bottom half of the round then put the Seahawks on top for good, advancing them to the semifinals against Drexel.

Here, UNCW dominated in PK’s, finishing with a 4-1 mark over the Dragons and giving them spot in the conference championship game against Hofstra.

“Nerve-racking,” described Cairney. “It was amazing really because penalty kicks are one of those parts of soccer where, it’s not the coaching, it’s just about the mentality that you think you can win it. I think after our kids beat Delaware in the quarterfinals, they felt pretty confident. Caitlin Hunter deserves a big well-done for her mentality to it. She felt supremely confident that she was going to stop anything that came close to her and that gave our team a lift.”

While the team did not finish the season on a winning note, dropping the championship game to Hofstra in double overtime 2-1, they should feel anything but disappointed. They accomplished more this season than anyone expected.

Going into next year, the Seahawks will probably be labeled the underdogs once again. Seven seniors, including Stephanie Rose, will have graduated, so the team will need those same players that stepped up this year to continue doing just that next year. After taking the time to figure out what worked for this year’s squad last off-season, the Seahawks will need to do the same this year.

Maybe they’ve gained their peers respect with their performance this season. Maybe not.

Either way, the UNC Wilmington women’s soccer team has proven to themselves that they are capable of being one of the best programs in the CAA.