It’s a good thing the Charlotte 49ers men’s soccer team has a conference tournament this weekend and a near-certain berth in the NCAA tournament next week, because coaches and players are having too much fun to call it quits.
“This is a fun team to play with,” said senior midfielder Brandt Bronico, whose team has the top seed and a first-round bye in the Conference USA tournament that will begin Wednesday at Marshall.
The 49ers, regular-season conference champions and the No. 5 team nationally, won’t play until Friday’s semifinals.
Postseason play has become customary for the program. They’ve been in the NCAA field five straight years, including a national runner-up finish to North Carolina in 2011.
This season has been a bit different though.
“The chemistry on this team is tremendous,” said Bronico, the team leader in most statistical categories, including goals (eight), assists (five) and shots (45). “We seem to get stronger every day.”
Coach Kevin Langan said the 49ers have a nice blend of youth and experience, but the team’s six seniors are special.
“Those seniors are a great, great group,” he said. “They’re a joy to be around. Our goal is to get them as many games as we can.”
The other seniors are forwards Harrison Steadman; midfielders Mark Sloan and Maxi Rodriguez; and defenders Matej Dekovic and Luke Waechter.
Waechter said 49ers soccer is fun this year because of low egos and high versatility levels.
“Players are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed,” he said. “It’s a really good atmosphere.”
Waechter is an example of that. Last season, he took 10 shots and scored a goal from his defender position. This season, with more firepower up front, Waechter has taken six shots.
“That’s no problem for me,” he said. “I’m not worried about scoring goals. To me, it’s a success when the other team has a ‘0’ on the scoreboard.”
That has happened 10 times this season as the 49ers compiled a 12-2-2 regular-season record. Only once, in a 2-0 loss to UNC Wilmington, has Charlotte surrendered more than one goal. The goalkeeper this season is a freshman, Elliot Panicco out of Hough High.
Waechter, who has won several defensive awards, said the seeds for this season’s tough defense were sown last year, when injuries forced Charlotte to put young defenders into the lineup.
“People stepped in, learned the job, and it has paid off,” he said. “Now we have a lot of versatility.”
That versatility is evident on the front line, too, Langan said.
“We have a lot of very good one-on-one players,” he said. “And they have different skill sets. That really helps us. It gives us a lot of options.”
Langan said his team’s positive attitude pays off in other ways.
“We tell them not to get frustrated,” said Langan, who played and coached in England, became an assistant coach at Charlotte in 2009 and then head coach in 2012. “Frustration is just a mindset. We challenge them to keep going. Eventually, the rewards will come.”
Waechter, recalling the pain of losing to top-ranked Wake Forest in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, said he doesn’t want this season’s fun to end anytime soon.
“This is my last year,” he said. “So the next practice is the biggest thing for me. And after that, it’s the next game. Nothing is guaranteed.”
CONFERENCE USA MEN’S SOCCER AWARDS
Player of the Year: Brandt Bronico, MF, Charlotte
Offensive MVP: Brandt Bronico, MF, Charlotte
Defensive MVP: Luke Waechter, D, Charlotte
Freshman of the Year: Elliot Panicco, GK, Charlotte
Golden Boot Award: Brandt Bronico, MF, Charlotte
Golden Glove Award: Elliot Panicco, GK, Charlotte
Coach of the Year: Kevin Langan, Charlotte
CONFERENCE USA SOCCER TOURNAMENT
The schedule for this week’s men’s soccer tournament in Huntington, W.Va.:
Wednesday: No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 5 New Mexico, 2 p.m.; No. 2 South Carolina vs. No. 7 Old Dominion, 4:30 p.m.; No. 3 Florida International vs. No. 6 Alabama-Birmingham, 7 p.m.
Friday: No. 1 Charlotte vs. Kentucky-New Mexico winner, 4:30 p.m.; South Carolina-Old Dominion winner vs. Florida International-UAB winner, 7 p.m.
Sunday: Championship, 2 p.m. (on ESPN3)