History was made in Charlotte this past December.
Never before had any Charlotte team advanced to a national championship. Never before had the sport of soccer generated so much interest and excitement throughout the city. Never before had the 49ers stood eye to eye with North Carolina powerhouse UNC - and measured up.
The Charlotte 49ers men's soccer team changed all that, making a run for the national title that will live in the memories of students, fans, alumni and the entire Charlotte community for a long, long time.
The 2011 season essentially began and ended with UNC. The two teams first met in an exhibition match on August 21st, a hard fought battle whose result hung in suspension after the game was called in the 70th minute due to inclement weather. The Tar Heels led, 2-1.
"I remember Coach [Gunn] telling us, ‘look the other team in the eye and decide whether you'd want to play a team like that later in the season,'" junior defender Thomas Allen recalled. "Little did we know we'd be playing them."
No one could have predicted that the two squads would meet again three months and twenty days later to finish the battle, this time fighting for something much more meaningful than an exhibition victory.
When the regular season began, the Niners got off to a mediocre 2-1 start, defeating Coastal Carolina and UNC Wilmington before suffering an unexpected road loss at South Carolina.
Three games later, Charlotte received a key momentum boost when it defeated #10 Virginia, 2-1 on the road. That match was an overtime thriller that saw sophomore midfielder Tyler Gibson force extra time with a penalty kick goal in the 90th minute and then assist on Isaac Caughran's game-winner just 42 seconds into overtime.
"The Virginia game stands out to me most," said junior forward Donnie Smith. "It instilled in us the thought that we could make the season special. That game was a season-changer."
With the victory, the Niners jumped to 14th in the national polls, gaining recognition as one of the top-tier teams in the country.
Charlotte sailed through the rest of the season, suffering only two more losses, including a tough 3-1 defeat at #3 Maryland. The next time the Niners would fall was in the opening round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, a 2-1 overtime loss to Xavier that left the then-eighth-ranked team stunned - but hungry for more.
"Losing might have been the best thing for us," Allen said of the conference defeat. "After we got a taste of that loss, it showed us what losing felt like, and we didn't want to feel that again."
Despite falling short in the conference tournament, Charlotte's 13-4-2 record and body of work throughout the season was strong enough to secure an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, the team's first appearance since 2008.
Over the six games that followed, the 49ers cemented their status as an elite team and garnered national attention with their heart and determination.
Charlotte earned commanding 3-1 wins over Furman and UAB in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament before squeaking past defending national champion Akron in the third round with a 1-0 victory on rookie Giuseppe Gentile's deciding goal.
Gentile, a freshman forward who was born in Switzerland but played high school ball at nearby Ardrey Kell in Charlotte, would prove to be a major factor in the Niners' NCAA Tournament success.
Not many college freshmen get the opportunity to play at such a high level. But Gentile handled the experience like a veteran, largely due to the warm welcome he received and team chemistry that quickly developed.
"It's been incredible how the team took me in," Gentile described. "They were really welcoming, really open and friendly. It made the transition from high school to college much smoother."
When the unseeded Niners traveled to Connecticut to face the third-seed Huskies in the Elite Eight, the team's resilience and chemistry became clearer than ever.
Trailing 1-0 with less than six minutes remaining in regulation, Gentile notched his tenth goal of the season to give the Niners life and send the game into OT. After two scoreless overtime periods, Charlotte calmly nailed four of five penalty kicks, including the decisive kick by senior defender and captain Charles Rodriguez, to advance to the Final Four for just the second time in school history.
"We had taken it into our hands at the beginning of the season that we were going to make sure we were good at PKs," remembered Tyler Gibson. "The last two years, we've had our season ended on PKs, but this year, we were ready and we felt confident going into every shootout."
Practice paid off, with the penalty kick victory vaulting the 49ers into the College Cup.
In the semifinals, Charlotte knocked off two-seed Creighton in a scoreless match that once again came down to PKs. This time, it was senior captain Isaac Cowles who drilled the game-ending kick, sending the 49ers to their first ever national championship appearance in any sport.
"After the game, we went up in the stands and thanked the fans," Allen described of the players' heartfelt interaction with the crowd.
"We're connected with our fans, and we try to make sure they know we appreciate them as much as they hopefully appreciate us," Gibson added.
Later that night, the team learned it would face one-seed Chapel Hill in what would be a rematch for the ages.
The Tar Heels prevailed in the College Cup Final, 1-0 in a match in which the 49ers were clearly the superior team for all but about ten minutes. But the final score proved to be unimportant.
What was important was the unwavering support from 49ers fans and families, whose chants of ‘I believe that we will win' sent chills throughout the stadium and could be heard through television sets across the nation.
Even in defeat, thousands of Charlotte fans rose and cheered, saluting their 49ers. The support was so loud and so heartfelt that it drowned out the celebration of the national champion Tar Heels.
"One of the biggest things I remember after the game is our fans still cheering us and supporting us, even louder," said Gibson. "They didn't care what was going on over on the other side of the field with the trophy presentation. It meant a lot."
Much will be remembered from Charlotte's so-called "Cinderella" season. The wins and losses, yes. But more importantly, the determination, heart, and passion of the players on the field will never be forgotten.