WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The University of North Carolina Wilmington is one of several schools helping to host this year’s men’s and women’s Division I soccer tournaments. For both brackets, the entire tournament will take place in North Carolina to limit travel during the pandemic.
UNCW soccer stadium hosts five games throughout the week: two women’s games and three men’s games. UNCW associate athletic director Mike Cherry says the slew of games is an opportunity to put the Cape Fear into the spotlight.
“We said yes. We felt it was a great opportunity for Wilmington community, for the university, to showcase our facilities as well as our locale here being close to the beach,” said Cherry.
Friday night’s women’s matchup featured the USC Trojans and Mississippi Rebels. Fans and parents from both teams traveled from across the country to see their teams play for a chance at a national title.
“This is our first time to Wilmington, not our first time in North Carolina, but it’s beautiful here,” said Richard Bethune, seated next to his wife Jean. “It’s a nice day, it’s sunny and warm, so what we’ve seen so far is very nice.”
Sunday, the school will host two men’s games, marking the end of a week full of preparation and execution for the UNCW athletics facilities team.
“This is probably the biggest moving piece that we’ve had here in awhile,” said Cherry.
Players and coaches must be tested for COVID-19 regularly throughout the tournament. While UNCW provided a spot for testing, the NCAA helped to schedule everybody and brought in outside companies to perform the tests. Another challenge, Cherry says, was finding a place for each of the teams to stay.
“The hotels, yes, was a little bit of a challenge. But working with our marketing folks here with some relationships that we had in town, and we were already working with the NCAA to find the best hotels for our teams, we worked it out,” said Cherry. “We got a great plan together, we had to find 10 days of hotels in a tourist town, that can be a challenge at some points.”
For each game, up to 250 fans are allowed to attend, including family members of the players. Tickets are available for $10.
“For a year plus, we’ve had no spectators at any of our sporting events,” adds Cherry. “This was another opportunity to broaden that perspective and allow our community to come see something that we haven’t had a chance to see.”
While the crew working the game tonight was made up of UNCW staff members, those traveling from other states had the chance to sit back, relax, and enjoy the city.
“We’ve had a wonderful time,” said Ole Miss parent Steve Martin. “This is our first time to the area; we’ve been really really happy.”
Cherry also says hosting the first and second rounds of the tournament is a chance for younger players to see the action, especially since both of UNCW’s soccer programs failed to reach the tournament this year.
“The soccer community here is a strong community,” said Cherry. “And we want to give the fans for that side of the soccer community a chance to come see some top soccer teams play.”