The Charlotte 49ers men’s soccer team entered the season with a No. 17 national ranking but found itself with a 3-4-2 record halfway through the season.
“It wasn’t the kind of start we wanted,” defender Luke Waechter says, “but we were growing stronger. Mentally, we kept strong, we kept playing better together, and we improved.”
The 49ers (10-5-2, 6-1-1), who have won eight of their past 10 matches, carry a No. 2 seed – and strong chance of an NCAA tournament berth – into the Conference USA tournament, which opens Wednesday at Charlotte’s Transamerica Field.
Kentucky (12-3-2, 7-0-1), the league’s top seed, has a first-round bye. Opening-round games Wednesday pit No. 4-seed Old Dominion vs. No. 5 Florida International at 2 p.m.; No. 3 South Carolina vs. No. 6 New Mexico, 4:30 p.m.; and No. 2 Charlotte vs. No. 7 Marshall, 7 p.m.
The semifinals are Friday, with the championship at 2 p.m. Sunday (Fox Sports Carolinas).
The 49ers gave up seven goals in their first nine games. While that is a good defensive record, Charlotte was even better over the second half of the season, permitting only four goals over an eight-game stretch.
“Our defense is not just the back four players,” says Waechter, who coach Kevin Langan says was a key piece in the 49ers’ run to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. “We defend from the front. It’s all about organization, communication.”
As a redshirt junior, Waechter is the old man in a defense that also starts two sophomores and a freshman.
Waechter, who helped lead Greenbrier (Ga.) High to region championships in his junior and senior seasons, says the young 49ers defense has become a unit and tries to be ready for other teams’ best shots.
“With our success, we know every game is a fight,” he says. “We are ready for that.”
He says the defense prides itself on shutouts, such as the 2-0 blanking of then-nationally ranked South Carolina on Oct. 23.
“A shutout is huge,” he says. “It’s the No. 1 thing for us. Game by game, we want to get better. I think we’re all focused and ready for what’s ahead.”
Match 1: No. 4 Old Dominion (8-4-3, 3-3-2) vs. No. 5 FIU (9-6-1, 3-4-0), 2 p.m.
Match 2: No. 3 South Carolina (10-6-1, 6-2-0) vs. No. 6 New Mexico (8-5-4. 2-4-1), 4:30 p.m.
Match 3: No. 2 Charlotte (10-5-2, 6-1-1) vs. No. 7 Marshall (7-8-1, 2-5-1), 7 p.m.
Match 4: No. 1 Kentucky (12-3-2, 7-0-1) vs. Match 1 winner, 4:30 p.m.
Match 5: Match 2 winner vs. Match 3 winner, 7 p.m.
Match 6: Semifinals winners, 2 p.m., Fox Sports Carolinas
2015 Conference USA soccer awards
Player of the Year
Callum Irving, Kentucky
Kyle Parker, Charlotte
Callum Irving, Kentucky
Freshman of the Year
Niko Klosterhalfen, Old Dominion
Golden Boot Award
Kyle Parker, Charlotte (seven goals)
Golden Glove Award
Callum Irving, Kentucky (seven shutouts)
Co-Coaches of the Year
Scott Calabrese, FIU
Johan Cedergren, Kentucky
All-Conference USA First Team
GK: Callum Irving, Kentucky
D: Marvin Hezel, FIU
D: Jordan Wilson, Kentucky
D: Michael Nelson, Old Dominion
MF: Brandt Bronico, Charlotte
MF: Napo Matsoso, Kentucky
MF: Chris Wehan, New Mexico
MF: Ivan Militar, Old Dominion
MF: Danny Deakin, South Carolina
F: Kyle Parker, Charlotte
F: Ian Svantesson, UAB
All-Conference USA Second Team
GK: Alex Tiesenhausen, Old Dominion
D: Nick Edginton, Marshall
D: Chris Gurule, New Mexico
D: Koty Millard, South Carolina
MF: Max Rodriguez, Charlotte
MF: Daniel Gonzalez, FIU
MF: Ismael Longo, FIU
F: Luis Betancur, FIU
F: Stefan Stojkovic, Kentucky
F: Rimario Gordon, Marshall
F: Niko Hansen, New Mexico
F: Kevin Walker, South Carolina
F: Freddy Ruiz, UAB
All-Conference USA Third Team
GK: Austin Pack, Charlotte
D: Matej Dekovic, Charlotte
D: Josh Goss, New Mexico
D: David Macsicza, Old Dominion
D: Ive Burnett, South Carolina
MF: Kristoffer Tollefsen, Kentucky
MF: Josh Dye, New Mexico
MF: Cole Stringer, Old Dominion
F: Thomas Gallitz, Florida Atlantic
F: Jesse Miralrio, Old Dominion
F: Jeffrey Torda, South Carolina
Conference USA All-Freshman Team
Tommy Madden, MF, Charlotte
Callum Montgomery, D, Charlotte
Steffen Böhm, D, FIU
Douglas Landvik, MF, Florida Atlantic
Tanner Hummel, D, Kentucky
Xahne Reid, MF, Kentucky
Francesco Casucci, MF, New Mexico
Patrick Khouri, MF, New Mexico
Niko Klosterhalfen, MF, Old Dominion
Jack Willbye, MF, Old Dominion
Peyton Ericson, D, South Carolina
Torgeir Nyboe, D, South Carolina