The UNC Charlotte men's soccer team was nationally ranked a year ago and is quickly ascending the NCAA rankings this season, looking to build on a strong start, timely scoring and a stringent defense.
Last year they finished 13-5-1 but lost in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament to Xavier.
That loss - on penalty kicks after the teams were locked in a scoreless tie through two overtimes - erased an otherwise great season and prevented them from making the NCAA tournament field.
This year, the 49ers have started hot and do not want to duplicate last year. They are 7-2, ranked 12th in the country, and have already defeated Coastal Carolina, Virginia (then ranked No. 17) and Clemson this year. They battled Maryland, the No. 3 team in the country, on Tuesday but fell 3-1.
Seniors Charles Rodriguez and Isaac Cowles lead the 49ers on defense.
Both were named to TopDrawerSoccer.com's list of top 100 pro prospects after last season.
Rodriguez, Cowles and redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Klay Davis headline the defense that has allowed just eight goals in the first nine matches and has recorded four shutouts.
On offense, senior Evan James has four goals, and junior Jennings Rex and senior Donnie Smith - a Charlotte Catholic graduate - have three apiece.
Junior Isaac Caughran, sophomore Tyler Gibson and freshman Giuseppe Gentile lead the offense that averages two goals per game.
Gibson was named A-10 player of the week after his penalty kick tied the Virginia game in the final minute and propelled the 49ers into the national spotlight.
Gentile, the Observer's player of the year last season at Ardrey Kell, is third on the team in shots on goal.
He recently scored for the first time for Charlotte and will be a cornerstone for years to come.
Other Charlotte-area players on the roster are freshmen Nick Hensley (Lake Norman High School), Jeremy and Cory Dennis (Vance), Jake Keating (South Meck), Nick Barnhorst (Ardrey Kell), sophomore Thomas Allen (Providence) and junior Darby Owen (South Meck).
Charlotte will kick off the A-10 regular season Oct. 7 against Massachusetts and play at Rhode Island Oct. 9.
TopDrawerSoccer.com has conference foe Xavier ranked No. 24. They'll square off against the 49ers Oct. 28 at Transamerica Field. It's a rematch in which the 49ers want to avenge last season's heart-breaking loss, set themselves up to win the A-10 and play in the NCAA tournament.
Charlotte can be as good as its defense allows it to be. With firepower on offense and a stingy defense, this is the year the 49ers may challenge for a national championship.