From ACC country to Creighton
Soccer coaches Elmar Bolowich and Sasho Cirovski matching wits in a game between top-five teams? Just like it's been for the past two decades, right? Not exactly.
Yes, their squads will face off at 7:30 p.m. ET Friday in College Park, Md. But there's something very different about this meeting of the longtime colleagues/friends.
Bolowich is wearing a distinctively different shade of blue. Last February, he stunned many soccer followers by leaving North Carolina, where he had successfully coached 22 seasons and won a national championship, to take over at Creighton.
Now his No. 2-ranked Bluejays will face Cirovski's No. 3 Terrapins in a showdown between two teams we could see at the College Cup in December.
It's not as if the Creighton program wasn't a top job; the Bluejays have made three College Cup appearances, most recently in 2002. Yet Bolowich's Chapel Hill-to-Omaha move wasn't one that many people saw coming.
But it does make sense: You can definitely understand the "big fish/smaller pond" element to the decision. At North Carolina, it's hard for any sport to get much attention when so much devotion is focused year-round on the men's basketball team.
Bolowich -- whose son, Alex, is now a redshirt freshman goalkeeper for the Bluejays -- saw Creighton as offering what men's soccer was never really going to get on hoops-obsessed Tobacco Road.
"The support there is so strong from the community," Bolowich said of Omaha. "You see there is an eagerness to be part of this, and it's reflected in our home crowds and the way people respond to us.
"The transition has been extremely smooth. The people here were so welcoming, friendly and helpful. We totally feel at home in Omaha right now."
Bolowich will also feel at home at Ludwig Field in Maryland, having coached so many games there in his ACC days. As good as the Terps always are, it's a very difficult place to play. While at UNC, Bolowich was 3-8 at College Park, and went 8-20-1 overall against Maryland. Last year, the Tar Heels won the regular-season matchup, then the Terps triumphed in the ACC tournament title game.
The ACC is a perennial power conference in men's soccer, and Bolowich and Cirovski are two of the main reasons why. During Bolowich's tenure at UNC, the Tar Heels made the NCAA tournament 15 times and had four College Cup appearances, highlighted by the 2001 national championship.
Cirovski, now in his 19th season at Maryland, has led the Terps to the postseason 16 times and has appeared in six College Cups, winning the 2005 and '08 NCAA titles. Despite the rivalry, he and Bolowich are close friends, and they talked during the latter's decision-making process about leaving his longtime home.
"He had a lot of good reasons why he made the move," Cirovski said. "All I told Elmar is 'Trust your instincts; you know what's right for you and your family. And then don't look back.'
"Honestly, the soccer world was shocked when he left North Carolina. But he's at a great place at Creighton. He's gone from one blueblood to another blueblood. There was a history and pedigree at Creighton before Elmar arrived there, and that's something he'll build upon. Things seem to be going awfully well for him."
Indeed, as new beginnings go, it would be tough to find one that has started out any better. It's not just that the Bluejays haven't lost or tied a game thus far. They haven't given up a single goal.
That's right: Eight opponents, eight shutouts. Senior goalkeeper Brian Holt has gone 719 minutes, 32 seconds without a shot getting past him this season. If this were baseball, in which superstitious teammates tend not to speak to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter, Holt might be the loneliest guy on Creighton's campus. He has been "pitching a no-hitter" for over a month.
Of course, any keeper on such a streak would rave about the defense in front of him: Creighton has allowed just 31 shots on goal in 2011.
Tyler Polak, who was the Missouri Valley Conference's Freshman of the Year last season, is one of the defensive anchors. Holt has been the MVC's Defensive Player of the Week three times so far this season, and Creighton junior center back Jake Brown also has won that honor.
"There was a strong nucleus here when I came in," Bolowich said of the defense. "There was a lot of great work done by the previous coaches; for me, it was just a continuation of an already existing strong group of players.
"But we know we will still see where our weaknesses are; those will be shown in some of our upcoming games."
Starting with Maryland, which has outscored its opponents 28-7 thus far and has almost as many shots on goal (75) as its foes have attempts (79). The Terps have been shut out just once: Sept. 20 at Seton Hall in double overtime. That ended in a 0-0 tie, the only "blemish" on Maryland's 9-0-1 record. Casey Townsend, John Stertzer and Patrick Mullins have combined for 22 of the Terps' goals.
"Something's gotta give," Cirovski said, chuckling, about Maryland's attack versus Creighton's shutout streak. "I'd be surprised if the game ends 0-0. I just think it's going to be an exciting college soccer game.
"And we not only have a great history with Elmar at North Carolina, but we also have that with Creighton, too."
The Terps and Bluejays have met four times -- all in College Park, and three in the NCAA tournament. In 2008, Maryland beat Creighton 1-0 in the NCAA quarterfinals on the way to the national championship. Holt and current leading scorer Ethan Finlay (six goals, four assists) are among four Creighton seniors who played in that match.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels -- now under former assistant Carlos Somoano -- are doing fine this season, too: They're 8-1-0 and ranked No. 5. Bolowich, a native of Edenkoben, Germany, is grateful for his time in Chapel Hill, and for what the big move has brought to him and his family.
"It has been refreshing to have a new start somewhere," he said. "I have to expand my network, the recruiting is a little different. It's all been invigorating for me."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.