A late-season surge gave Coastal Carolina a strong chance of being selected for an at-large berth in the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament.
The Chanticleers didn’t want to leave anything to chance, however, and guaranteed themselves a spot in the 48-team tournament with a 2-0 victory over Georgia State in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game Sunday to earn the conference’s automatic berth.
“That’s what we look forward to every year, that’s what we work for,” said CCU senior midfielder Martin Melchor, who scored CCU’s second goal Sunday at the CCU Soccer Complex. “All throughout conference all we’re thinking is get that championship so we can go to the NCAA.”
The Chants expect to host a first-round game Thursday before traveling to one of the top 16 seeds in the second round. First-round pairings will be announced Monday.
Coastal has now qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of the past eight years and 13 times in head coach Shaun Docking’s 20 years leading the program.
CCU entered the game ranked 26th in the national RPI ranking of team strength. “We figured if we lost today we were still in, but there’s no doubt about it now, so this is nice,” Docking said.
After a 2-4 start to the season and 4-6 record through 10 games, Coastal (12-6-1) has won five straight games and is unbeaten in its past nine at 8-0-1.
The Chants haven’t lost since Oct. 3, a 3-1 defeat to UNC Wilmington, which was ranked 15th in the country at the time.
“In the beginning of the season we had our ups and down but we kind of stepped it up and fought for each other, so finally we got it done,” said CCU senior forward Frantzdy Pierrot, the Sun Belt Player of the Year who had an assist and three shots Sunday. “I think we just started working for each other. We had a lot of new players coming in so we had to build that chemistry and trust each other.”
The Chants had several players miss games with injury early in the season, including midfielders Louis Dargent, Ryan Willoughby and Brennan Koslow, and forwards Yazeed Matthews and Tyrone Mondi. They all played Sunday with the exception of Dargent.
“And they all played a big part tonight so that tells you how much of an impact they’ve had on the season,” Melchor said. “We got everybody together and we all came together.”
Coastal finished 4-1 in the six-team conference with a loss in its conference opener against Georgia Southern on Sept. 16 and defeated Georgia State 3-1 in its regular-season finale on Nov. 4. Georgia State (12-7-1) was the conference runner-up at 3-1-1.
The Chants completed Sunday a sweep of the six-team Sun Belt regular season and tournament championships in each of their first two seasons in the league.
Docking points to a 2-0 win at South Carolina on Sept. 30 as perhaps CCU’s best effort of the season and a turning point.
“I think this year was a big challenge for us because at the start of the year we weren’t getting the results and we just didn’t have the chemistry that we were looking for within the group,” Docking said. “… We really started to turn our season around from that point on. We started to get a few guys back from injury, started to get guys playing better and that was a big key for the second part of our season to kind of come together for us.”
The unbeaten streak has the Chants ranked in the top 30 in three national polls, at No. 23 by Top Drawer Soccer, 25 by Soccer America and 27 by College Soccer News. The Chants are also receiving votes but unranked in the primary national ranking, the United Soccer Coaches Poll.
Last season, CCU defeated Radford in the NCAA first round and lost 2-0 at Wake Forest in the second.
On Sunday, junior midfielder Saif AlHameli from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates scored his first goal of the season and the game’s first goal at the 30:30 mark.
Georgia State failed to fully clear a corner kick by senior defender Miguel Gutierrez and AlHameli corralled the ball outside the 18-yard box and fired a shot inside the near right post.
Melchor gave the Chants a 2-0 lead with 4 minutes remaining with his fifth goal of the season, which ranks third on the team.
“That took off a lot of pressure, because one goal and they’re back in it, so that was perfect,” Melchor said.
With Georgia State pressing for the tying goal, the Chants had an break and Pierrot drew a defender before feeding Melchor near the right post for a tap-in goal. “I could have finished it but just to be safe I wanted to just play it [to Melchor],” Pierrot said. “As long as we’re winning, even if I scored, whoever scored it didn’t matter to me.”
Coastal carried play through much of the game, particularly in the second half, and outshot the Panthers 13-5, though it only held a 3-2 edge in shots on goal. Coastal hit a crossbar and post, Mondi beat goalie Luke Oesterle with a shot that was saved on the goal line by defender George Proctor, and Pierrot just missed the crossbar with a header that landed on the top of the net.
Senior keeper Braulio Linares-Ortiz made two saves, his biggest coming early in the second half when he got a hand on a shot headed to the top right corner of the net and deflected it over the crossbar.
The Chants hope to have more talent and depth Thursday with the possible return from injury of Dargent and fellow midfielder Wes White, and the increased availability of freshman midfielder Carlos Becerra, who was limited Sunday because of injury.
“We’re starting now to get a few more pieces for the tournament and the form, the way the guys are playing, anything can happen. I feel pretty good,” Docking said.