To get from Wake Forest, home of the top-ranked men’s soccer program in the country, to UNC Chapel Hill, site of the No. 5 team in the country, you have to go past a tiny North Carolina hamlet named Elon.
It’s a speck on the map, a quaint little stop of sleepy, tree-lined streets.
It also is home to the 21st-ranked team in the NSCAA Coaches Poll from Nov. 3.
If you haven’t heard of Elon University, the soccer powerhouse, you’re forgiven.
Nestled smack between two other perennial top programs — Wake Forest and North Carolina — Elon often is overlooked. But the Phoenix are trying to become a constant in the national soccer conversation, too, with three straight NCAA tournament appearances from 2011-13 as the foundation for a program that has risen to a steady spot in the top-25 this season.
Elon finished the regular season 13-5, and despite not advancing to the CAA title game, earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament field.
If that recent-year string of success is surprising, you’re not alone. Even some of the Phoenix players didn’t know much about Elon, at first.
Senior midfielder Miguel Salazar, for instance, grew up in Arizona, and only learned of the program after Elon’s coach, Chris Little, spotted him at a tournament.
Sophomore midfielder Jonathan Coleby had heard even less about Elon since he grew up in England. But a friend of the family’s knew Little, too, and suggested Coleby look into the program.
Both players were pleasantly surprised after a little research.
“You always think about the big names like Wake Forest, North Carolina, so for me to look into Elon and see they were a decent program, I was surprised,” said senior midfielder Miguel Salazar. “When you ask people about Elon, they won’t really know about it much. Maybe we are the underdog, but we like that. We like to be the underdog and surprise people, and prove to people that we are a big team.”
Elon pulled off the ultimate surprise early this season when it toppled Wake Forest 1-0; it was the Demon Deacons’ only loss of the season.
It also was second consecutive victory for Elon over Wake, with another 1-0 Phoenix win coming in 2013. Elon is 5-8 all-time against Wake Forest.
“As a player, that’s why I came to Elon,” said assistant coach Brad Franks, who played for the Phoenix 2007-10. “We were always playing ACC schools and we’ve always done quite well against them. Not just Wake and UNC, there’s a lot of good soccer in North Carolina between Duke and UNC Charlotte, UNC Wilmington, UNC Greensboro. There’s a lot of really, really good soccer.”
That’s why Elon doesn’t view its victory over Wake this season as program-defining, or even season-defining.
“There are 17 games that count just as much, really,” Coleby said. “It was a big win for us and a big win for the school. It got a bit of publicity for us, which is always nice. But I don’t think it’s got much more weight behind it than some of the other wins we’ve had.”
Take the skid of losses to Duke, Hofstra and Radford that ended the season, for instance. All those losses hurt, but Elon also has experience in adversity after Little’s first head-coaching season in 2014 ended with a 9-6-4 record.
“Obviously, nobody starts at the top,” Salazar said. “That’s the beauty of it. When I came to Elon, I knew that I wanted to make it to a big program. You’ve just got to work hard every day. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a process to make a school a big name.”
And that’s the goal: to make Elon more than just a short stop on the road between Wake Forest and Chapel Hill.
“At the end of the day, we want to be nationally relevant, we want to be in the top 10 every year,” Franks said. “So, just trying to work toward that goal, and hopefully we can find our way into that every year.”
Above: Video produced by Don Schick, a Charlotte based freelance producer.