Wingate makes history with Division II mens soccer national title

Fueled by a victory against in-state rival Pfeiffer in the region final, the Bulldogs beat Charleston 2-0 on Saturday to win the first national championship in school history

Jack Dempsey—Photo courtesy of Wingate athletic communications

Every championship team has an obstacle it must first clear before setting its sights on the ultimate goal. For the Wingate men’s soccer team, that hurdle was in-state rival Pfeiffer. Although the Bulldogs beat Charleston 2-0 on Saturday in Kansas City to win the NCAA Division II national title, it was a victory two rounds earlier against their North Carolina neighbors that convinced coach Gary Hamill and his players that they might be in the midst of something special. “That was a whole championship within itself,” sophomore forward Nate Evans said of Wingate’s 1-0 victory against Pfeiffer, the defending national champions, in the regional final. It was a result the Bulldogs had been waiting an entire year to achieve after losing by a goal to the Falcons in the second round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. “When they went on to win it last year, we knew we were so close to being that next great team,” said Evans, a graduate of Greenville’s D.H. Conley High. “Everybody put in work and grinded for the next 12 months, and it paid off.” Wingate went 19-1 this season, bouncing back from its only loss — to Brevard in the first round of the South Atlantic Conference tournament — to reel off five straight shutout victories on the way to the first national title in any sport in school history. The final victory followed a familiar pattern with leading scorer Jon Ander scoring twice and a suffocating defense around goalie Pablo Jara holding Charleston to just eight shots, 12 below its season average. Hamill, who is in his 25th year as the Bulldogs’ coach, said he started to feel good about his team’s chances when Ander scored his first goal in the 36th minute. That was a good sign, since Wingate hadn’t allowed more than one goal in a game all season. It wasn’t until Anders buried his 10th goal of the year on a left-footed shot from 20 yards out with 12 minutes remaining that the veteran coach started to let himself believe that his dream was about to become a reality. “We knew if we could put the ball in the back of the net, we’ve got the best defense in the country,” Hamill said. “We knew from the start that we could do this. “But when the second goal went in, the stomach knots went away and it started to hit home in the final two or three minutes. I sort of realized this thing was actually done.” It wasn’t until the Bulldogs returned home and were honored in an on-campus celebration Tuesday that Hamill fully understood the significance of what his team had accomplished and what it meant to Wingate as a whole. “You don’t read a history book until you’ve actually done something,” Hamill said. “Then you look back on it and it’s absolutely phenomenal the reaction of a few thousand people over the course of the last four or five days. “It means the world for the university. I’ve heard from more people that I don’t even know that have graduated from Wingate. It’s just been crazy.” Hamill laughed at the thought of being an overnight success after a quarter century on the job. But while the process took a little longer to complete than originally planned, the native of Northern Ireland said the wait has only made the accomplishment all the more meaningful. “You dream 25 years ago like any other coach to win a national championship,” he said. In all honesty, with funding and everything else, the realization of the process came about probably in the last half dozen years. … In typical Irish humor, it took me long enough.” That increase in funding has helped Hamill expand his recruiting net around the entire globe. The roster of his championship team looks like a roll call from an international tournament, with members from England, Scotland, Brazil, Chile, Spain, Cameroon and even six players from right here in North Carolina. From that unlikely mashup of different cultures and personalities, the Bulldogs have been able to blend a team whose cohesion and communication — especially on the defensive end — became perhaps their greatest strength on the way the national title. “Everyone here is different. But at the end of the day, on the field we know we are a family and we are together,” Evans said. “It’s really different living with people from all over the world, but that’s one of the best things about being a soccer player at Wingate.”