What a difference a year makes.
The Charlotte 49ers, one season after missing the Conference USA women’s soccer tournament, are now its champions.
The No. 6-seeded 49ers finished a surprising five-day run through the C-USA tournament Sunday afternoon with a dominating 4-0 victory against No. 4 seed Florida Atlantic in the title game at Transamerica Field.
Charlotte (11-8-2) now heads to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
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“We just won three straight tournament games, so why stop now?” said senior midfielder Katie O’Neill, one of four 49ers to score.
Charlotte also got goals from Julia Grainda, Megan Greene and Emily Truelove, and former Lake Norman High player Riley Orr contributed two assists. Goalkeeper Anna Shelden recorded her second straight tournament shutout.
The 49ers were in control from start to finish, scoring their first goal in the 6th minute on a header in the 6-yard box by freshman forward Grainda on assists by Greene and Orr, who started the play with a corner kick.
Charlotte added two more scores in the first half. O’Neill scored in the 26th minute on a header at the back post, assisted by Kaitlin Walker’s cross from the right side. And the 49ers took a 3-0 halftime lead on Greene’s header from the top of the 6-yard box, assisted by an Orr cross from the right side.
“We got off on the front foot and stayed on the front foot,” said 49ers coach John Cullen. “To get up 3-0 at the half in a championship game is a dream.”
Greene scored Charlotte’s second-half goal three minutes after halftime. Midfielder Emily Truelove drilled a shot from about 12 yards, assisted by Orr and Martha Thomas.
It was a successful finish to a dramatic turnaround for the 49ers, whose regular season ended with three straight losses. But Charlotte’s quarterfinal win against No. 3-seed Western Kentucky, 1-1 on penalty kicks, turned things around.
“I think that gave us some belief,” Cullen said. “We just stepped up. This is the business end of the season and you have to bring your best game. Wednesday was huge. Friday (a 1-0 semifinal win over Texas-El Paso) was bigger and today was massive.”
The 49ers will find out their NCAA tournament opponent and destination when pairings are announced Monday at 4:30 p.m. ...O’Neill was named the tournament’s most valuable offensive player, and Charlotte defender Shelby Hicks was defensive MVP. Shelden and midfielder Kelley Suggs were also named to the all-tournament team