CONWAY — As preparations were made setting up for Monday evening’s NCAA Selection Show, the Coastal Carolina men’s soccer team filed quietly into the hospitality suite in the HTC Center, confident but anxious.
They huddled around a projection screen and waited to find out if they would be playing anymore soccer this year. Fifteen grueling minutes later, cheers erupted from the room as the Chanticleers were informed they would be at home in the first round of the NCAA championship, and against a hauntingly familiar squad.
Elon University, whom they beat a mere 6 weeks ago.
“We played Elon in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, with the exact same draw,” CCU coach Shaun Docking said. “We hosted them this time last year, and we beat them 4-3. We just played them this year at home, and we beat them 2-1.”
Coastal may be familiar with Elon, but that doesn’t mean they will become complacent.
“No it’s not going to change the way we prepare,” Ashton Bennett, Chants senior forward and candidate for the MAC Herman trophy, said. “We look at every team, it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve played them, we’re still going to take the same approach. We need that ‘W’ and we’re going to work as hard as we did before, so it’s not going to change anything.”
Nothing is being overlooked, as Coastal prepares for Thursday night’s first round matchup.
“I think they’re two very different teams,” Docking said. “We played each other six weeks ago, and both teams are very different. They are a much improved team, they’ve got the nation’s leading goal-scorer, Chris Thomas, with 24 goals I think, and he’s excellent.
“He’s very, very good. They’ve got a very good team. We’ve got to look at them, and try and make some adjustments, and give it a go Thursday night.”
The week didn’t start well for the Chants, whose 15-game winning streak was snapped against rival Winthrop in the Big South Championship game Sunday night – a similar end to last year, along with any hopes of getting a first round bye.
“It was a big disappointing loss for us,” Bennett said. “Most of these guys are new, and this is their first time on such a big winning streak. There’s a negative side and a positive side, and you just have to look at it as ‘we’re not unbeatable’.
“We have to definitely get the positives and move forward. It just shows us that we have to work harder. It’s definitely going to boost the confidence, and give us an extra push to get us where we want to go. This definitely wakes us up as a team, and we’re going to have to work more together, and push harder.”
Docking added: “It’s going to give us extra motivation. It’s going to help us re-focus a little bit, and make sure we go into this with more hunger, and more focus, so that’s how we’re going to approach it.”
Regardless of how Coastal’s final regular season game ended, confidence is high in Chanticleer country, and for good reason. This is Coastal Carolina’s third-straight NCAA tournament appearance and with one of their greatest seasons it’s not hard to imagine a title run with such a talented group.
“I think we can certainly put together a couple of games,” Docking said. “Elon’s a very good team, and if we were able to beat them, then we could go to Wake Forest, play up there. We’ve played Wake Forest this past spring so we know them very well, and hopefully we can get past them as well. From then on, who knows? It can go anywhere. I think ultimately it would lead to playing at Maryland, which would be nice.
“It’s a great venue up there, it’s a fantastic atmosphere. You beat them, and you’re in the Final Four. Anything can happen. The good thing is, we’ve got a path where if we were to put together a couple of games, then we’d stay on the east coast, so that would be great. We’re not going to the west coast to play any games, which is a big advantage in the NCAA tournament.”
Looking forward, things won’t get easier for Coastal and not because of the competition. Because they won’t go easy on themselves.
“We’ve been looking at our weaknesses, stuff that we need to improve on, our strengths; we need to improve there as well,” Bennett said. “I think our combination is something that’s ours, it’s our style. We’re definitely going to improve on that because now we’re to the point where teams are a lot quicker, and we need to prove that we can match up to the competition so we’re definitely going to have to work on our game and make sure it’s on point.”
As they get ready for a quick-approaching game, the Chants know they have what it takes to bring home a national title.
“I think we have the talent individually and as a team to get the results,” Bennett concluded. “I think that’s something that’s been our strong point since day one.”
Contact JOSH BELL at 444-1702.