DURHAM, NH — With their 1-0 loss to Vermont (13-4-2) the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (16-1-2) not only lost out on a fourth straight America East (AE) Championship, but they also saw their national ranking cascade from sixth in the nation to 16. It was a slide that nearly toppled the Wildcats over the edge and out of a first-round bye, but the committee kept UNH out of the first round by the skin of their teeth. Now in the same quadrant as No. 1 seeded Oregon State (12-2-3, 7-1-2), UNH will have the hardest road to the College Cup of any top 16 team. The ‘Cats will face the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (11-6-1, 4-4-0) in the second round Sunday at Wildcat Stadium.
Head coach Marc Hubbard didn’t seem phased at the prospect of a trip across the country to take on the Beavers.
“I think it’s an easy motivating factor,” said Hubbard following the selection show. “If we’re lucky enough to advance this weekend, then we’re in a great position to give it our all, whereas [during the championship], we kind of felt like our season wasn’t done regardless. So now we’re in a position where it’s do or die, and that sort of motivating factor hopefully will fuel us to play our best.”
The good news? UNH will be far healthier than they were in the AE Championship. Hubbard said the team got a little banged up versus Vermont, but those decisions were made to keep some players on the bench rather than risk further injury. He explained that had the game been win or go home, some of his guys would have been able to finish the game.
That first-round bye for New Hampshire will be a massive boost to the fitness and energy levels of this team come Sunday.
“We’ve been the team that has to play on Thursday and then turn around and play quickly on the Sunday, and it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Hubbard. “So, it’s definitely an advantage to play Sunday as our first game. It will give us a little bit more time to prepare for the next opponent.”
Of course, UNH can’t get ahead of themselves. As Hubbard said, they have to beat the UNC Tar Heels to even have the chance to face Oregon St. Fifth-year captain Jacob Gould said it is exciting to host an NCAA Tournament game no matter the opponent.
“It’s really cool that we’ll get that experience going forward,” said Gould. “Regardless of who it is that comes here, just to be able to host and show our fans our brand of soccer and play it, play a big team, and it’s just exciting, I think all around.”
The ‘Cats got beat by a Vermont team that is no stranger to cold weather nor Wildcat Stadium. Gould said that the two teams that would have potentially had to come to Durham Sunday wouldn’t be so lucky.
“They’re used to playing on nice grass in a soccer-specific stadium,” said Gould. “And we’ve been [at Wildcat Stadium] for four or five years now. So maybe that gives us a little bit of an advantage.”
UNH’s record of 42-2-7 in Wildcat Stadium would suggest that the football lines and artificial turf give more than a slight advantage. Gould added the loss to Vermont stung but moving forward, it will supply ample motivation.
“We’re definitely upset about it but happy to be able to keep playing soccer and have the tournament to look forward to,” said Gould. “So hopefully, we can apply that energy to our next game.”
The next game will be Sunday at 2 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium. It’s win or go home, so get ready for an all-out Wildcat performance.
Photo courtesy of China Wong