Afterward, there were hugs.
Maybe they were necessary, some kind of consolation for the Charlotte 49ers after their 3-0 loss to No. 14 Duke Saturday in the first round of the NCAA women’s soccer tournament. This was, after all, the last time some of these girls would ever wear their uniforms.
But really the hugs were celebratory. This game might not have gone their way, but for the 49ers (11-9-2) to be in the postseason tournament was an accomplishment in itself.
Last season, they missed the Conference USA tournament. This year, not only did they make it, but they won. Then they earned an NCAA tournament berth — against last season’s national championship runner-up.
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That’s why they hugged, to laud how far they’d come.
“It was always going to be a difficult game,” coach John Cullen said. “At times it looked like we were going to weather the storm, but it was just a barrage of players running off us.”
Duke (13-4-3) made it known early and often why it was the favorite. The Blue Devils created their first chance less than a minute into the game, and they scored their first goal 10 minutes in.
But Charlotte withstood, goalkeeper Anna Shelden leaping and driving every way she could to stop shots. And then, with 17 minutes left in the first half, it appeared the 49ers would get a break after all.
Martha Thomas, the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, dribbled to the end line and slowly danced closer to the goal. She made it just feet from the net when she was tackled from behind, giving Charlotte a penalty kick and a chance to tie the score.
Thomas stepped up for the kick, but instead of leveling the score, she dinged the ball off the right half of the crossbar and watched it ricochet away.
“A little too hard,” Thomas said of her kick. “I should’ve worked on them more.”
Duke extended its lead with two more goals after halftime, and when the final buzzer sounded, Charlotte walked off the field. It might not have been the result they wanted, but it didn’t prevent the 49ers from taking pride in all they’d accomplished.
“I honestly can’t think of a better way to end my soccer career,” senior Kaitlin Walker said. “This honestly is ideal. This team has worked so hard for each other.”
Walker finished answering questions, and then she walked away. Maybe it was to find her coaches, or her teammates, or maybe her family in the stands.
Whoever it was, she was looking for someone to hug.