Revamped Tar Heels look to make another run
Call it respect. Or giving credit where credit is due. Whatever it is, when a team makes an impressive postseason run -- the way the University of North Carolina did in last year's College Cup -- that team can expect to open the next year with high hopes, a high ranking and a large target on its back.
The Tar Heels are poised to be that team this fall. The challenge is to take all that in stride, while rebuilding.
After beating what appeared to be a nearly unbeatable Wake Forest team in the Final Four, UNC finished runner-up to 2008 national champion Maryland.
But -- as is the case with college soccer, or all college sports for that matter -- the Tar Heels will be a significantly different squad when they take the field this fall.
The team loses five starters from last year's College Cup team, most notably Brian Shriver (14 goals, five assists in 2008).
"Every year presents a new challenge," Tar Heels coach Elmar Bolowich said. "Our challenge is to be as strong and as formidable a team as we were in 2008. Recruiting and renewed leadership will be the key to make a run next year."
So far this offseason, the team has made strides when it comes to both.
The Tar Heels will bring aboard eight new players for the 2009 season -- three of whom joined the program in January.
Midfielders Michael Farfan (Cal State Fullerton) and Stephen McCarthy (Santa Clara) transferred to UNC for the spring term, while defender Max Mosch came over after attending Heisenberg-Gymnasium school in Germany.
Farfan and McCarthy join the team with numerous conference accolades between them and are expected to make an impact right away.
"[Those additions] will tremendously help us because of their prior experience with Division I programs," Bolowich said. "We're filling a void where we lost two starting midfielders in Garry Lewis and Michael Callahan, but now we have them being replaced in an instant."
However, Bolowich knows getting everyone on the same page and comfortable in the new lineup isn't going to be instantaneous.
"You can't just continue and assume that all the new players immediately understand their roles, but you cannot just do it all over without continuing what has been working well and what's proved to be successful," the coach said. "For us, it's a matter of integrating the players and making sure they understand how Carolina plays. But we also want to fine tune [the team] in a way that we utilize the strength of the new players. Maybe that gives us a slightly different look, but in essence, the principles as to how we want to play always remain the same."
Having an extra few months to acclimate new players to the program, while working to find that balance between the old and new, is something the Tar Heels hope will give them a head start on rebuilding.
"The spring helps a lot having these transfers in early," goalkeeper Brooks Haggerty said. "They get used to the team. We get used to them. We're just training really hard right now."
That process will continue throughout the summer and once the freshmen get on campus. North Carolina will welcome five freshmen, with two-time South Carolina player of the year Enzo Martinez leading the class.
"Communication is the key," defender Zach Loyd said. "It's just talking to [the young players] about our experiences, how to deal with classes and schedules. It's about communicating that these are our standards and how it is we do things.
"We're pretty much a new team. I think it's just a matter of getting to know each other better, working together, figuring out how each other plays. Once we get that, I think we'll start progressing quickly over the summer.
"It takes time when you lose five or six starters to readjust and familiarize yourselves with each other. I think once we do that everything will just go forward from there."
While the newcomers will play a major role in helping the team go forward, it will be up to the team's veterans to lead the way.
Leadership is a much-debated subject. Are leaders born or are they made? Is it better to have a vocal leader or is it just the same to be reserved and lead by example? With more than two decades of coaching experience, Bolowich said he's come to see the many facets of leadership as well as when to place that responsibility upon players, and if necessary, when to pull back.
"I try to look at the makeup of our players in terms of what they can bring leadership-wise," Bolowich said. "Then we see if we can burden some with, 'Can you be the one who can do the job for us?' and so forth.
"I think just appointing somebody to be a leader because you feel like they would be a good choice may not be the right thing because some players just want to be performers. They don't want the extra challenge or burden of being also a leader. They feel that's too much responsibility, and they want to shy away from that. I don't want to burden any of our players with that."
In those cases, Bolowich said, it's up to the coach to take up a bigger leadership role from the sidelines. However, he feels the group he has before him is more than competent and willing to step up as leaders. It's a responsibility the team's current seniors say they are already embracing.
"Our senior group is really tight, and we all lead as a group," Haggerty said. "Each different guy brings a different role of leadership. One will be really good at leading by example, doing everything on -- and off -- the field right, but then those people sometimes aren't the best verbal leaders, which some other people are really good at on our team."
Leadership -- like all other aspects of the game -- is a learning process.
"We're all working together trying to figure out exactly what we want to do with the team this year and what direction we want to go in," said Loyd, who was voted the team captain for the upcoming season. "We're doing programs [such as the Carolina Leadership Academy, offered by the university to foster student-athlete leadership development] to help us. I think the leadership role is going to take time."
While it may take a little while for everything to fall into place for the Tar Heels, one thing the team hasn't lost from last season is the confidence that carried them to the national championship game.
"I feel good about our team," Bolowich said. "I know there is desire. I know there is strength. I know there is the will."
And, new players or old, at the end of the day, those kinds of intangibles are what make a team a serious contender.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.