UNC men’s soccer team deals with death of former player

CorrespondentAugust 25, 2012 

College Cup Soccer

UCLA forward Fernando Monge (9) fights for the ball with North Carolina midfielder Kirk Urso (3) the first half of their NCAA College Cup soccer semifinal game at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., Friday, Dec. 9, 2011.

DAVE MARTIN — AP

Eight months after he was named North Carolina’s men’s soccer coach, Carlos Somoano helped guide the Tar Heels to the summit of their sport by winning the NCAA title last December.

Some eight months later, Somoano has the challenge of helping his team navigate the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

UNC has been grieving the death of Kirk Urso, the popular senior captain of last year’s national championship team, after Urso died on Aug. 5 in Columbus, Ohio, of undetermined causes. The entire team flew to Illinois for his funeral, and the players will wear a black No. 3 – Urso’s number – on their jerseys this season to commemorate their friend.

The hard part now for the program is finding a way to focus their attention on a season hasn’t seemed to be all that important for much of the last three weeks.

UNC opens its campaign tonight against Gardner-Webb at Fetzer Field at 7 p.m. The Tar Heels will honor Urso with a number of tributes that will be held before and during the game.

“(Urso’s death) is definitely something that we have to deal with,” Somoano said. “We have no choice. And we will. We’ll do our best.”

Senior goalkeeper Scott Goodwin said the coaching staff has done a good job of helping the players in the early stages of the grieving process.

“Carlos met with the team not long after he found out, and we all talked about it and shared our feelings a little bit,” Goodwin said. “We all went to his funeral, so we dealt with it in our own way as a team. It’s by no means over. We’ll continue to deal with it for the rest of the season, for the rest of our lives, even. Kirk meant so much to us.

“For the time being, I think we’re focused on what Kirk would want us to do. I think right now that’s pushing to get the most out of ourselves and try to do as well as we can this season.”

That’s the point former Tar Heels coach Elmar Bolowich would likely make if he were still coaching the team.

Bolowich recruited Urso to UNC and coached him for his first three seasons, all of which ended with the Tar Heels losing in the College Cup. When Bolowich left UNC after the 2010 season to become the head coach at Creighton, he texted Urso to tell him that he hoped Urso would not only help lead the Tar Heels back to the College Cup in 2011, but that he would help them win the elusive title.

After that happened, Bolowich made sure to text Urso his congratulations.

In light of the current circumstances, Bolowich said Somoano isn’t really the type to ask for coaching advice, and even if he were, Bolowich would merely tell Somoano he’s doing all he can.

“Time will heal the wounds I guess, but it will be a little bit of time that has to expire before things are back to normal,” Bolowich said. “It’s a bad thing in many ways. Certainly, I don’t mean it in a disrespectful way, but in many ways, life has to go on.

“We mourn the death of a very, very special person and a very special young person that died way too early. Now, life has to go on. The boys have a season ahead of them – Carlos has a lot of work to do to integrate the new players. I’m sure there’s not one day that goes by that those kids that were associated with Kirk don’t think of him or remember him.”

And it’s true – Somoano has the challenge of replacing many of UNC’s key players from last year, including the majority of the team’s attacking players.

“A lot of goals that we had last year that are not here; that doesn’t mean we don’t have good players – we do; we have good players, and we have a lot of guys who can score,” Somoano said. “We just have to find the right combinations and put it together quick.”

While there will be sadness tonight – in addition to the patches on the uniforms, Urso’s No. 3 will also be painted on the field – it would be a mistake to suggest the last three weeks has sapped all the Tar Heels’ enthusiasm for the season.

Even with all the newcomers up front (there are 12 freshmen in all), UNC returns seven players from last year’s team, which went 21-2-3. The coaches’ poll has UNC as the preseason No. 1. Goodwin and sophomore midfielder Mikey Lopez were named preseason All-Americans by Soccer America.

“I think excited would definitely be an understatement,” Goodwin said. “I’m very pumped to get everything started.”

In that vein, Urso’s death might provide an opportunity to galvanize his former teammates.

“You’re always looking for ways to teach and for lessons for them to learn, but this is such an important part of their life, and it’s not a lesson that you ever want to have to teach through,” said N.C. State coach Kelly Findley, who has been friends with Somoano since the two were in high school.

“I do think it opens some doors, and if I know Carlos, he’s got great character. It’s a tragic thing, but he’s going to use it to invest in his guys that every day matters and what you do now is important because those days are numbered.”

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