CHAPEL HILL — Two years ago, the North Carolina men's soccer team was knocking at the door of an NCAA championship game appearance on a cold night at Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park.
Facing top-seeded Akron in the College Cup semifinal, the Tar Heels played a man-down for 40 minutes but took the Zips to penalty kicks, where they eventually fell 5-4.
On the other side of the field was Ben Speas, then a freshman midfielder for Akron who recorded three shots on that scoreless night.
The North Carolina men's soccer team (19-2-2) is one game away from yet another College Cup appearance, with St. Mary's (11-6-5) standing between the Tar Heels and a fourth straight trip to college soccer's version of the Final Four. And as if they needed any more postseason experience, the Tar Heels have Speas on their side for another run at their first title since 2001.
"They've joked about it more than I have," said Speas of his new UNC teammates' comments on that December night in 2009. "I don't really bring it up; it's in the past. I don't really think about it when I'm with them, to be honest."
Speas isn't a typical transfer in the sense that he jumped from one successful program to another almost seamlessly. He scored two goals and three assists last season for Akron, and this year he has tallied five goals and nine assists for the Tar Heels.
"I really enjoyed my time there, but after it I thought it was best for me to move on and get a fresh start," Speas said. "(Akron head coach) Caleb (Porter) felt it was best for the Akron program, too. So then I came here and couldn't be happier."
Hardly a day passed in May following Speas' announced decision to transfer from Akron when UNC assistant coach Jeff Negalha began contacting him about taking a visit to Chapel Hill. Speas visited campus the next week and signed to play for the Tar Heels a week later.
UNC teammate Billy Schuler has known Speas for nearly four years, with their friendship pre-dating college when the two were in Florida training for U.S. national teams. Schuler said Speas fit in right away with the team, even if he was a little hesitant.
"I wasn't quite sure how it was going to be," Speas admitted. "The guys were great. They were friendlier than me, not that I wasn't friendly, but they were very accepting."
The junior forward proved his worth throughout the season but never shined brighter than this postseason for the No. 1 Tar Heels. Speas has three postseason goals going back to the ACC tournament, where he was named MVP for the championship-winning Tar Heels.
"We have several players with multiple years of College Cup experience, but then we have many who are getting their first tournament experience all together, so we have an interesting dynamic there," UNC head coach Carlos Somoano said. "Ben has been part of the group that's really helped keep us calm and stable and knows what it's all about."
Speas, who still has many friends on the Akron team, paid close attention to the Zips in their first postseason without him since 2008. They exited in the third round with a 1-0 loss to Charlotte.
He felt bad for his former teammates but said they have only wished him the best this postseason. And the Tar Heels are glad to have him on their side.
"He fits in well with us because we have a lot of guys who also have experience in the College Cup," Schuler said.
"He knows exactly what it's like, and it's nothing new to him. He won't be skipping a beat when we're playing there."