When the 91 Triangle United Gold players went to Little Rock, Ark., to compete in the U.S. Youth Soccer Association National Championship Series last year, they were still relatively unknown.
They had surprised the whole of Region III by winning the tournament -- the first squad from their age bracket in North Carolina to do so -- and entered the national tournament hoping to do the same.
And they almost did. Going undefeated through pool play, Triangle United was held out of the championship game by goal differential, despite being tied for the most points of any of the six squads.
This year, they head to Lancaster, Mass., not as underdogs but as defending Region III champions. Luckily for them, coach Elmar Bolowich said, they're even better.
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"Now we are known, and these teams are prepared -- they don't take us lightly," said Bolowich, who is the UNC men's coach. "So we also will turn up the gears a little bit. I think we are stronger than we were last year."
That's partly because they have another year of experience this season, Bolowich said, but it also comes down to chemistry.
And whether it's through on-field exercises or off-day basketball competitions at a teammate's house, the players are working on improving chemistry, said midfielder McAmos Paye, who plays for East Wake.
"This team is a better soccer-playing team than the one last year," said Paye, who, at 15, plays two age groups up. "And we tried to build our chemistry better this year -- and we're actually moving the ball like soccer players should."
This year, Bolowich said, the rules have been changed so that the two teams with the highest point totals will play in the final -- not necessarily the winner of each of the two groups -- to avoid situations like Triangle United's last year.
"So now it's just a matter of going through the games, and you know you have to win them all," he said. "And every team that qualified, they have gone through something and have endured, so they're not any different than we are."
And regardless, he added, this season his players are putting forth every effort to change last year's ending
"The effort is always there," Bolowich said, even when his players are having an "off-day." "And that's, I think, something that is very, very important. It is basically why we are successful.
"Because even though these guys are not necessarily playing at their peak level, they're not going to hurt us, being on the field."
Midfielder Jordan Rouse, who plays for Enloe High, said the players' experiences in Little Rock last year are giving them even more motivation for their next round at the nationals.
"We're pretty anxious and excited, especially since we've been there last year and we didn't win," he said. "We just really want to win this time. We really, really want it."