CARY — Time stood still as the final whistle blew.
Alex Comsia placed his head in his hands, bending over before sitting down inside of the box. Jelani Pieters and Nils Bruening froze on the field, slowly registering what was happening around them. As the James Madison players rushed the field, a look of shock and heartbreak spread across North Carolina’s faces.
Just like that, it was all over.
The No. 5 seed North Carolina men’s soccer team fell, 2-1, to JMU during the NCAA Tournament second-round matchup on Sunday night. This premature loss marks the first time all season that the Tar Heels surrendered more than one goal and the first time the team scored in a game and lost. It was also the first time under head coach Carlos Somoano’s leadership that the squad lost during its opening game in the NCAA Tournament.
“I just want to apologize to all of the Carolina soccer fans that we couldn’t get the job done,” Somoano said. “Wish we could’ve done better.”
It was a slow start for the Tar Heels. The team came out flat footed, not registering its first shot until the 12th minute. Senior midfielder Bruening made a run through the box, but his shot went wide. By that time, JMU had already shot three times. The Dukes shot three more times before finding the back of the net in the 27th minute.
JMU’s early advantage seemed to light a fire under the Tar Heels. Five minutes later, sophomore forward Giovanni Montesdeoca scored the equalizer, his eighth goal of the season, with help from Bruening and Pieters.
“I just saw Jelani flick it back, and I knew Nils was going to hit it down so I just made the run to open space and I was able to put it in,” Montesdeoca said.
For the last 13 minutes of the half, UNC dominated possession. It fed off the energy of the equalizing goal, hoping to take the lead. The Tar Heels had three more shots, while JMU had none in those final moments of the first half.
“We were able to create some chances off of (my goal), but we weren’t able to finish,” Montesdeoca said.
The second half was a different story.
Despite UNC dominating possession and JMU’s Fernando Casero receiving a yellow card, the momentum shifted in the Dukes’ favor. Aaron Ward-Baptiste scored his seventh goal of the season in the 68th minute in front of a crowded box.
This was uncharted territory for the Tar Heels. The team hadn’t allowed an opponent to score more than one goal all season. The only time this season the Tar Heels won after falling behind was a September win over Pittsburgh. The Tar Heels started scrambling on the field, showing a sense of uncertainty.
Junior forward Jack Skahan was the only Tar Heel that came close to leveling the score. In the 71st minute, Skahan rocketed a shot at goal, only for it to hit the post. For the remaining 19 minutes, the game was foul-ridden. JMU outfouled UNC 13-5 in total, committing five of those in the final 19 minutes. The Dukes’ Manuel Ferriol received a red card with 1:33 left in the match, but it didn't affect the outcome.
His team pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the weekend.
It was a hard pill to swallow for North Carolina. After Somoano spoke briefly to the team on the field, players lingered. Hardly any of them were eager to get into the locker room as they looked around the WakeMed Soccer Park’s Koka Booth Mini Stadium, a field they learned to call home over the last two years.
Slowly, players started heading toward the locker room, the starters and seniors being the last to follow. Skahan sat on the metal bench on the UNC sidelines, his hands clasped together in front of his face. The silent atmosphere that surrounded him embodied all of the emotions the team was feeling, especially for their seniors.
Shock. Heartbreak. Dejection.
North Carolina's season was over, finishing 14-4-1 and winning the ACC Coastal Division title. For the seniors, this season will soon be a distant memory. It’s a closed chapter, but for Somoano, it’s too soon to reflect the impact of this season’s team.
“It’s not the greatest time to have to think about that because I’m disappointed that I couldn’t do better, disappointed that we couldn’t get these guys what they wanted,” Somoano said. “I love them all, and I’m going to miss them dearly.”
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