Last season, North Carolina's path to the College Cup was a tightrope act in which the Tar Heels were in frequent danger of falling off.
This year, though, UNC is the only one of the teams headed to the men's soccer Final Four that had a drama-free quarterfinal. The No. 1-seeded Tar Heels beat upset-minded St. Mary's 2-0 on Saturday, securing UNC's fourth consecutive appearance in the College Cup.
The other three quarterfinals all went to overtime, and two ended with visiting teams triumphing. When coaches said throughout this season that the College Cup berths really seemed up for grabs, they knew what they were talking about.
Joining North Carolina in Hoover, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, for Friday's semifinals are No. 2 seed Creighton, No. 13 UCLA and unseeded Charlotte. All have made previous College Cup appearances, with the Bruins having won four NCAA titles (1985, '90, '97 and '02) and the Tar Heels one (2001).
That championship for UNC came under coach Elmar Bolowich, who left Chapel Hill after last season to take over at Creighton. So the potentially most dramatic storyline coming into this season -- that Bolowich and his new team would face longtime assistant Carlos Somoano and the Tar Heels -- could still play out.
First, though, UNC will face UCLA in the semifinals, while Creighton plays Charlotte. The Tar Heels have won nine matches in a row; the Bruins are winners of eight straight. During those respective stretches, North Carolina has given up four goals, while UCLA hasn't surrendered any. That shutout streak by UCLA is the school's longest since 1977.
On Saturday night, the Bruins triumphed 1-0 at No. 12 seed Louisville, the place where UCLA's season ended last year. This one went to double overtime, with sophomore forward Reed Williams scoring the game winner in the 102nd minute. This will be the 13th College Cup appearance for the Bruins.
"I think the elements last year in the quarterfinal had an effect on the game," UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said of the snowy conditions at the 2010 matchup between the Bruins and Cardinals. "We came here last year and were bitterly disappointed. [On Saturday] you had two teams that absolutely battled I thought our second half was what won us the game. The game really epitomized our season.
"Sometimes when you want to win a game so badly, you lose sight of some important principles of the game. I kept reminding them we had to have good team shape and continue to double their outside midfielders."
On the other side of the bracket, the Creighton-South Florida game was set for Saturday, but heavy snow in Omaha, Neb., delayed it until Sunday. And the guy who's been Mr. Offense all season for the Bluejays -- senior forward Ethan Finlay -- provided the only goal of the game. It came in the 97th minute; Creighton's 1-0 overtime win was the 43rd career shutout for goalkeeper Brian Holt.
Creighton finished the season perfect at home for the second time in program history, going 14-0-0. This will be Creighton's fourth trip to the College Cup; the previous ones were in 1996, 2000 and '02.
The Bluejays now will face a Charlotte team that lost in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament but has turned it on since then. The 49ers started the NCAA tournament with two 3-1 victories, first against Furman and then versus College Cup host UAB.
Then Charlotte knocked off defending champion Akron 1-0 at home, but next had to travel north to Storrs, Conn., for a meeting with No. 3 seed UConn, a team that had spent four weeks this season ranked No. 1.
The Huskies lost in the Big East tournament final to St. John's, but they had played well in their two NCAA tourney games before taking on Charlotte. UConn, in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,100 on Sunday, took the lead in the 82nd minute on a goal by Tony Cascio.
But 49ers freshman forward Giuseppe Gentile, who grew up in Charlotte and had scored the game winner against Akron, netted the equalizer against UConn in the 85th minute. After two scoreless overtimes, it came down to a penalty-kick shootout, which was won 4-2 by Charlotte.
"We were passing it a little better than them, but we were finding it hard to get clear-cut chances," 49ers coach Jeremy Gunn said. "But time and again this year, this group has the belief they kept pushing."
It's not a surprise that experience in goal is a strength of three of the College Cup teams, with junior Scott Goodwin of UNC, senior Holt of Creighton and redshirt senior Brian Rowe of UCLA. The youngest of the keepers is Charlotte redshirt sophomore Klay Davis. He played in eight matches last year for the 49ers before taking on the full-time role this season.
"We're trying to become one of the best teams in the country, and we believe we can do it," Gunn said. "Now we're in the Final Four, and when you think of the different hurdles we got across to get [there] I feel we've earned it, no doubt about it."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.