NCAA: UNC Charlotte try to keep magical run alive

What would a dance be without a Cinderella? Thanks to unranked UNC Charlotte, it’s a question the NCAA Tournament won’t need to ask itself.

Despite strong regular season and postseason performances, the 49ers went into the tournament unseeded by the selection committee. After five wins – including a 1-0 result over defending champion Akron and a shootout victory against No. 3 UConn – Charlotte is in the College Cup for the second time in school history and first time since 1996.

That’s not to say they didn’t get respect this season; the 49ers spent most of the year ranked in various national polls. But Charlotte wasn’t exactly a favorite to reach the last four of the tournament.

“To us, it’s not a surprise,” senior 49ers defender Charles Rodriguez told MLSsoccer.com over the phone. “It might be a surprise to the rest of the country, but we felt like we were fit enough, strong enough, determined enough to make it this far.”

To the team, the success is seen simply as a product of the long hours of preparation put they’ve put in, hours that began even before school was in session.

“I would have to say all the work we did in the summer and how early the majority of the team was back,” Rodriguez said. “I think by mid-July we had about 20 players back, all working together, all of us doing fitness, just holding our own captains’ practices. That in itself put our fitness level in a position to be where we are today.”

The 49ers rode their preparation, timely goals from freshman Giuseppe Gentile, and a stout defense led by Rodriguez and Isaac Cowles to a 13-4-2 regular season.

Despite a solid regular season performance, however, Charlotte fell in the Atlantic-10 tournament final to underdog Xavier. But the 49ers bounced back in a big way for the NCAA Tournament. After beating Furman at home 3-1 and taking down UAB by the same score in Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte recorded back-to-back upset victories to reach the College Cup.

“Thinking back to the Akron game where we hosted them, we knew they’re the national champs the year before, but as we talked about, that was last year,” Rodriguez said. “The reason that they were coming to Charlotte to play us was that we had a better season up to that point than they did.

“We weren’t cocky; we were confident in what we could accomplish as a team if we played our style of soccer – and the same thing with UConn.”

Charlotte’s victory against the vaunted Huskies came on the road, and they’ll have to have a repeat performance on Friday against the Creighton Bluejays in Hoover, Ala. (6 pm ET, ESPNU, ESPN3.com), to reach the finals.

But the 49ers weren’t even supposed to be in this position at this point in the tournament. Who’s to say another upset isn’t in the works?

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.