CONWAY — Coach Shaun Docking says he wasn’t entirely certain whether his Coastal Carolina men’s soccer team would hear its name called during the NCAA tournament selection show Monday night.
With an 18-2-2 record, it would have been quite a surprise for the Chanticleers not to make it into the 48-team field, but after stumbling in the Big South Conference championship game Sunday in a loss to Winthrop, well, they hadn’t exactly taken care of business as planned.
But the Chants will indeed get a second chance in that regard with their broader season goals still very much intact as they begin their third-straight NCAA tournament appearance Thursday evening while hosting Elon in the opening-round.
“I think this loss in the [Big South] tournament this year, it kind of got us back on the ground,” sophomore defender Kjartan Sigurdsson said. “It was a tough loss. We all obviously wanted to win that game, but ... this loss definitely helps us to regroup. We came together after the loss and we said, we’re getting a second chance and we’re going to use it.”
This is, after all, the same Chants team that had won 15-straight games prior to that 3-2 defeat to Winthrop and the same team that was ranked as high as No. 8 nationally last week.
And Docking is glad they not only get a chance to further that resume – a low RPI was his main cause for uncertainty during the selection show – but also the chance to start their postseason push at home.
“We’re playing a very good Elon team,” Docking said. “We’re very fortunate to be hosting because they actually didn’t put in a bid to host, otherwise we would have been going there. So I’m excited about the opportunity to host. They’re a very good team. RPI-wise, they’re better than us, so we’ll see what happens.”
The Chants are No. 13 in the latest national poll released this week by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, while Elon (15-4-2) is No. 16 in those rankings.
And if this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
Coastal defeated Elon, 4-3, in Conway during the first round of the NCAA tournament last year and also topped the Phoenix earlier this season by a 2-1 margin at the Richmond Marriott Classic in early September.
But Docking feels this will be a much-improved Elon team Thursday night. For instance, Elon senior forward Chris Thomas leads the NCAA in goals scored with 23, but he registered just one shot in 60 quiet minutes against the Chants back in September.
“I think if Chris Thomas comes to play he’ll be very good. He’s a very dangerous player,” Docking said. “He’s a very good player. He’s the nation’s leading goal scorer, so they’re going to be very good. Again, I’m just glad we’re playing them here and not up there.”
If there’s one thing Coastal can do as well as anybody, though, it’s put the ball in the net. Senior forward Ashton Bennett was the NCAA’s leading goal scorer last season with 23 and enters this game with 15 goals and nine assists, while sophomore forward Ricky Garbanzo has 13 goals and five assists.
Bennett did his part in that loss to Winthrop while tallying a goal and an assist to help stake Coastal to a quick 2-0 lead, but the Eagles rallied with goals in the 87th and 89th minutes to pull ahead and stun the Chants.
That’s in the past now, though.
“I think the Winthrop game is definitely something we can learn from,” senior forward Sean McCormick said. “Instead of it being a negative, we can take it as a wake-up call and come out ready to go.”
The winner Thursday night will advance to play No. 15-seeded Wake Forest (11-3-5) on Sunday in Winston-Salem, N.C., and now that the Chants are in the tournament, they know anything can happen. Coastal reached the second round last year for the first time since 2003 before losing 3-2 to top-seeded North Carolina.
“You never know. That’s the beauty of soccer,” Sigurdsson said. “You can beat the best team; you can lose to the worst team. So on a good day we could go all the way if we play our game, but at the same time we could lose [Thursday] if we don’t bring it.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.