CARY, N.C. — When Marshall’s Chris Grassie talks about a key to victory at the College Cup, NCAA soccer’s version of the Final Four, he isn’t necessarily referring to on-the-field concerns such as ball possession or defensive responsibility.
He means the plastic key card that opens the door to his room at the team hotel.
“They give you these little room keys when you check in and they have the College Cup logo on them,” Grassie said. “Of all the medals and things I’ve saved, I think I’ve cherished those most.
“It’s a reminder that I just want the key for the last night. Just give me the key the night after the championship so I can go back to my room, fully celebrated, and enjoy it. We can definitely step up and do it this time.”
Grassie has come tantalizingly close to accomplishing his goal in the past.
He was an assistant on the staff at Michigan when the Wolverines advanced to the College Cup in 2010 before returning three times, with a pair of unsuccessful trips to the championship final, as the head coach at the University of Charleston.
Friday, Grassie will get another crack at having his team be the last one standing when he leads the Thundering Herd into a national semifinal showdown against North Carolina at Sahlen’s Stadium.
Game time is 6 p.m. with national television coverage on ESPNU.
Marshall (11-2-3) has advanced this far with an overtime victory against Fordham before scoring back-to-back upsets of Clemson and Georgetown. Despite its success, the Herd is considered something of an outlier among a final four that also includes high-profile programs Indiana and Pittsburgh.
That perception, however, has only served to add motivation for a coach and team that consider themselves anything but an underdog.
“This is not a surprise for us,” senior goalkeeper Oliver Semmle said. We want to go far and I think we already went far. But we aren’t done yet. We still want to go and win the title.”
Semmle and his teammates have already opened some eyes by knocking off the tournament’s No. 1 seed and the defending national champion in their past two games in Cary.
But the task moving forward doesn’t get any easier.
The reward for the back-to-back upsets is a date with the host team, playing less than 30 minutes from its campus.
“This is the no-asterisk, national championship game for us,” Grassie said. “We played the number one, we played last year’s champion and then UNC (is a) storied program. There are all great teams left.”
The Tar Heels (9-4-4) won national championships 10 years apart, in 2001 and 2011. With another decade having passed since their most recent title, they’re right on schedule to come out on top again.
Like Marshall, however, UNC came into the tournament unseeded and is just as much of a College Cup surprise after posting wins against the Herd’s Conference USA rival Charlotte, Stanford and Wake Forest.
The Tar Heels feature an attacking offensive style Grassie compared to the one employed by Charlotte. Senior forwards Giovanni Montedeoca and Santiago Herrera, both of whom scored in their team’s Elite Eight win, led the team with five and four goals, respectively.
UNC’s defense, which Grassie likened to that of Georgetown, has produced nine shutouts behind junior keeper Alec Smir.
“They’re very solid at the back and have a couple of electric wingers out there that we have to deal with,” the Marshall coach said. “We’re pretty confident going into it. They’re not dissimilar to some teams we’ve faced in the past. As much as they have strength, we’ve proven to ourselves we can overcome it.”
Because the Herd is making its first College Cup appearance, Grassie is using his own experience to help prepare his players — led by the veteran nucleus of midfielders Vitor Dias and Max Schneider, forward Milo Yosef, wing Jamil Roberts and defenders and back Jan-Erik Leinhos — for some of their own keys to victory.
“Our goal, and we haven’t been scared to say it for a few years now, is trying to win a national championship,” Grassie said. “We won a conference championship in 2019 and then again this year and the guys have had more belief. But we’ve always had that extra carrot, the vision in the future of (wanting) to win a national championship.
“You beat a No. 1 seed or you beat the former champs, but that’s not enough because they didn’t give us the trophy. We keep focused on the destination ahead and the distractions are easier to manage that way.”