by Jac Coyne | MCLA.us
LA CROSSE, Wis. – Prior to 2022, UNC-Charlotte was just surviving. Maybe 20 players showing up for tryouts in the fall. Middling results.
As we enter the final stages of this season, the 49ers are one of the most intriguing teams in the country.
Charlotte is ranked No. 17 in Division II as it heads into its last two games – including Friday night’s senior ceremony before a tilt with Appalachian State – and they are the odds-on favorite to be the top seed in the ALC-II tournament.
Whether it was from the post-pause bump or the attractiveness of the school, this last fall indicated there was something new going on.
“At our first practice of the fall, we had close to 50-plus guys show up, many of which with familiar college helmets from nearby NCAA schools,” said UNC-Charlotte coach Nick Nedvesky. “At that moment, it was clear that the foundation [former Charlotte coach and current Texas State head coach] Daniel Ryan and our staff from 2019 laid down was starting to pay off.
“The culture was changed for Charlotte lacrosse.”
After a 6-0 fall, Nedvesky and the 49ers were feeling pretty good, so they opted to open up the season with a pair of ALC Division I opponents. It’s a low-impact way to start a season, as cross-divisional games don’t count against your tournament resumé.
Both West Virginia and NC State entered the season with high expectations when they headed to the Queen City.
Only one got out alive. Barely.
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“The goal from our coaching staff was to put together a tough stretch at the start of the season to set a baseline for the year,” said Nedvesky. “What better way to do that than to test yourselves against a few quality D1 opponents?”
The 49ers downed West Virginia, 11-9 before losing to the Wolfpack when a fourth-quarter charge came up a goal short, 10-9.
They outscored WVU, 6-2 in the second half and held a 7-4 second-half advantage against NC State.
“I think my assistant coach, Jacob Collins, put it best: ‘I think that’s the story for this team. Nobody has ever beaten us for four quarters,’” said Nedvesky. “We always get to see at least one quarter where everything clicks and the guys play out of their mind. It’s fascinating to watch the guys play the game at the highest level like that.”
After the 1-1 start against Division I opposition, the 49ers rolled up CLC foes Central Conn. State and Stonehill by a combined total of 41-6.
Then a ranked MSU Denver squad came to town on March 21. That’s when the lightbulb went off for the 49ers.
“It was our first time playing a team who had also played top teams like Montana State, who played them 18-12,” Nedvesky said. “The baseline was set, so we wanted to see how we stacked up against common opponents.
“We ended the first quarter up 12-0 and led at halftime, 17-1. To be able to rest the starters against a ranked team for an entire half, we knew we could have a special season.”
Since then, Charlotte has bundled three conference foes, including preseason ALC-II favorite Wake Forest in the last game. The 18-7 final was indicative of how the 49er players are approaching the season.
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Just a little bit of that chip on the shoulder.
“Our guys aren’t blind and they could see the talk of Wake Forest being the ‘heavy favorites’ in the ALC,” said Nedvesky. “It was no secret. It was our time to make a statement and introduce ourselves to the country as a true contender this year in the MCLA.”
Charlotte has got some serious players. Nick Ferens is on pace to be the leading scorer in the division and the overall attack unit is the most prolific to this date.
Senior goalie Noah Becker has twice been named the PEARL Goalie of the Week.
The 49ers are scoring 10 more goals than they are letting up.
The postseason can be a cruel mistress, however. In addition to the two more games on the regular season docket, there is the ALC tournament, which could mean another date with Wake.
But that’s way down the road. It starts on Friday night against App State.
“We have established a culture where we play every game like it could be the last one,” Nedvesky said. “Our seniors have four possible weeks left of their college careers. COVID took two seasons away from these seniors. We don’t take a single game, practice or event for granted, which has allowed us to stay in the moment, stay humble and stay focused.”
GAMES I’M FOLLOWING
It’s a relatively light slate of games as Easter weekend tends to be. There only three games on Sunday. But there are a several games to keep an eye on.
No. 4 Liberty at No. 2 Virginia Tech, Friday – 7 p.m.
If the seeds hold in the ALC, this will be a preview of the championship game on May 1 in Lynchburg, so the two teams will certainly be saving some secrets for later. The Hokies are the hottest team in the country and have home field advantage, so one would have to consider them substantial favorites. The winner remains a big contender for the No. 1 seed at nationals.
St. John’s at No. 3 St. Thomas, Friday – 7 p.m.
Comparative score would suggest this shouldn’t be much of a contest. Rivalry games can get weird. That’s all I’ll say.
No. 7 Utah at Air Force, Saturday – 11 a.m.
Like the ALC-I, the two top seeds in the RMLC-II tournament get together for a game that will be a nice chip in the nationals at-large resume if needed. By ranking, this should be a quick and easy work for the Utes, but that would be a dangerous approach. Nicholas Capannelli gives the Falcons a game-changing FOGO weapon that will keep this one close.
No. 11 Arizona at No. 12 Arizona State, Saturday – 12 p.m.
Is this a conference tourney elimination game? I think it might be. There are still a lot of moving parts, including potential tiebreakers, but this definitely feels like an elimination game. And if you don’t make the conference tournament, it’s really tough to leapfrog the teams that make it. This is going to be a beauty.
Missouri vs. Kansas, Saturday – 6 p.m.
Who wants the top seed out of the LSA North? Both of these squads need a magical run to the LSA AQ to have any chance at Round Rock, but that’s why we play the games. Mizzou would seem to be the favorite with a game-changing goalie like Dylan Radke.
No. 19 Cal State San Marcos at No. 13 UC San Diego, Saturday – 7 p.m.
For my money, these are the most under-ranked teams in the division. I fear that whoever loses this game will be out of contention, which would be a shame, but the number crunch is not always fair. The Tritons have made a bit of a name as a defensive unit while the Cougars can score. This is a good matchup.