BY ADAM SERRANO
Growth. Development. Excellence.
As the Louisville Cardinals sit on the cusp of the College Cup, the team has been lifted by these three simple words en route to an 18-0-3 season. The undefeated Cardinals sit in uncharted territory as they prepare to face the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA College Cup Final Four on Friday (ESPNU/ESPN3, 8:30PM). Louisville may sit in the midst of a 21-match unbeaten streak, but the Cardinals head to Santa Barbara not as favorites, but afterthoughts.
The fact that many are overlooking the team does not bother their head coach Ken Lolla.
"We're not too concerned about what other people think of our team," said Lolla. "Our self image is what is truly important to us, not what people are saying about us."
That growth and development under Lolla have been central to the Cardinals success over the past several years. In a tournament that has been dominated by the star power of teams like Akron and Maryland, the Cardinals have flown under the radar in their journey to Santa Barbara. In the absence of the star power, Louisville has used their timely scoring to advance to the Final Four.
The presence of players like regular season points leader Colin Rolfe (7 Goals and 6 assists) and freshman starlet Dylan Mares (8 goals and 3 assists) have developed the Cardinals into title contenders. In addition to the play of the team's stars, the timely play of players like midfield Charlie Campbell (2 goals in the postseason) have aided the Cardinals in their journey to Santa Barbara.
For the true development of the program, one must investigate how far the Cardinals have come since Lolla's arrival in 2006. It was not long ago that a winning season was once an accomplishment for the Cardinals, but under Lolla's tenure, the mindset has changed immensely at Louisville. The head coach at the University of Akron for 13 years before leaving for Louisville in 2006, Lolla lifted the Zips to their first No. 1 ranking in program history. With the Cardinals, Lolla has developed his team into a constant presence at the NCAA tournament. Under Lolla, the Cardinals have made all of their NCAA tournament appearances.
"There are is a higher standard of excellence now and the fact that we've been more successful particularly in the tournament just raises that standard," said Lolla. "The perception of ourselves has changed since I arrived,when I first got here, they did not see themselves as a successful program and it is that change in perception of ourselves that has been most valuable."
The Cardinals may be undefeated, but their route to Santa Barbara has not been easy. Victories over College of Charleston, Ohio State and UCLA have pushed the Cardinals to the brink each time. However, it was their comeback victory against the Bruins last week that proved that the Cardinals belonged among the nation's best.
Twice the Cardinals battle back from a two goal deficit against the Bruins on the snowy pitch at Cardinals Park and with a timely goal by Aaron Horton just moments before the end of regulation, the Cardinals were able to book their ticket to California. For Lolla, it was this victory where his team developed.
"Overcoming adversity in any situation makes you stronger and its a sign of a good team when you feel that you can overcome any obstacle," said Lolla."That game was one that only the weather, but coming back from the deficit certainly built our character and our confidence as we prepare for Santa Barbara."
In the confines of Harder Stadium in Santa Barbara, the Cardinals will take on the Tarheels, ranked No.4 in the tournament. Led by slick midfielder Michael Farfan, the Tarheels have advanced Much like the Cardinals, the Tarheels have been tested constantly advancing to Santa Barbara after three straight penalty kick shoot out victories. Ahead of Friday's match, Lolla is expecting that the Tarheels will be one of the stiffest tests of the season.
"They're a very talented team and they've had a wonderful year so far and they are a technical team that is good on and off the ball," said Lolla. "With Farfan, the thing about North Carolina is that you can't take care of one guy and expect to be successful. If we want to advance then we will have to take care of the them as a team."
However, for Lolla whether the team is facing North Carolina or Akron, it is the growth and development of his student-athletes that matters the most.
"We know that who ever we face at this point is a great team and when you face the best teams in the country then you have the best opportunity in which to grow as a team and as people.