Voepel: North Carolina, Maryland, Boston College lead crowded ACC men’s soccer pack

North Carolina forward Billy Schuler started the 2010 soccer season knowing he was walking a tightrope. He’d injured his shoulder during the summer and rested but had been told that surgery was the only sure way to fully fix it. He thought he could delay that by gutting it out for his junior season and avoiding any further damage.

[+] EnlargeBilly Schuler

Jeff Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications North Carolina forward Billy Schuler has rediscovered his goal-scoring form after missing most of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury.

A collision with Seton Hall’s goalkeeper in an early-September victory ended that plan.

“I hurt it really bad again, and I knew I’d need more time off,” Schuler said. “I didn’t want to have to go through the season like that. I decided it was best to take care of it then.”

Schuler redshirted and had the operation. His injury was one of several that the Tar Heels had to deal with through the 2010 season. It didn’t stop them from making their third consecutive appearance in the College Cup, where they fell in the semifinals to Louisville.

Now, a year after the injury that forced him to sit out a season, Schuler has returned at nearly full force.

“My shoulder is back to feeling 100 percent, but I’m still getting my feet really underneath me,” Schuler said of being in game shape. “For as long as I was out — six months — I knew it would take a while to where I fully got my fitness back.”

If the first three games of this season represent Schuler at less than 100 percent, then look out ACC. The junior was named player of the week both nationally — by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America — and in the league. He scored in each of the Tar Heels’ first three games — victories over UNC Wilmington, Oregon State and then-No. 1 Louisville. North Carolina’s 2-1 win against the Cardinals came Sunday, almost a year to the day of Schuler’s season-ending injury.

“We didn’t see it as revenge,” Schuler said of the rematch of last season’s national semifinal. “It was just a big game that we had to take care of. But I was as excited as ever. We competed really hard and dictated tempo for a lot of the game. As a team we played amazingly well, but we have our first ACC game coming up, so we have a lot ahead of us.”

That league opener will be Saturday at Virginia Tech. Sure, the Tar Heels were picked to finish first in the ACC while the Hokies were projected to finish last, but the Heels go to Blacksburg, Va., with a wariness about having a target on their backs, although they are used to that feeling.

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“You can never underestimate any team in the ACC,” Schuler said. “Whether a team is having an up or down year, you know it’s going to be a huge game for them facing us, and they will come completely psyched up.”

The win over Louisville propelled UNC to No. 1 in the NSCAA poll, with ACC rival Maryland at No. 2. Also ranked from the league are No. 8 Boston College and No. 24 Virginia.

Duke was No. 23 in the preseason but has started 1-3. The Blue Devils lost this past weekend to now-No. 6 UC Santa Barbara — one of the Big West teams who are making noise early this season — and SMU. On Friday, Duke will try to right the ship against visiting Virginia.

While Duke is off to a struggling start, Maryland and Boston College — like North Carolina — are undefeated. They will be the marquee matchup of the ACC openers, as the Terps host the Eagles on Friday night. Maryland, which won the ACC tournament title last year before being upset in the NCAA quarterfinals by Michigan, is a two-time NCAA champion.

That ACC tournament final last year between the Terps and Tar Heels was in Cary, N.C., one of the games Schuler had to watch while cheering on his teammates but also gritting his teeth that he wasn’t on the field.

“I was so happy for the entire team, especially the way we got to the Final Four,” Schuler said, “but it was really hard to be on the sidelines.”

That’s not a place where he’d spent much time in his soccer career. Schuler, who’s from Allentown, N.J., played his senior season of high school at Edison Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He graduated in December and enrolled for spring semester at North Carolina to be fully prepared for his freshman year.

[+] EnlargeSasho Cirovski

Icon SMISasho Cirovski, head coach of defending ACC champion Maryland, earned his 300th career win on Sunday.

He started 16 games as a rookie on a Carolina team that fell to Maryland in the national championship. His sophomore season, he had nine goals and five assists in a season that ended in nearby Cary with a national-semifinal loss to Akron on penalty kicks.

So far this season, the 5-foot-11 Schuler has four goals, with sophomore teammate Rob Lovejoy adding three.

North Carolina won its only NCAA title in 2001 under longtime coach Elmar Bolowich. He left this past winter, though, for Creighton. His former assistant, Carlos Somoano, has stepped in as the head coach after nine seasons in Chapel Hill.

The ACC has other “fixtures” coaching. Boston College’s Ed Kelly is in his 24th season with the Eagles. Sasho Cirovski, in his 18th season with the Terps, got his 300th career victory Sunday when Maryland defeated Radford. George Gelnovatch took over at Virginia in 1996 after starting as an assistant at his alma mater in 1989. Jay Vidovich is in his 26th season at Wake Forest, his 18th as head coach.

The UNC administration thought Somoano was well-prepared to join the ranks as an ACC head coach, and Schuler said the Tar Heels’ players backed that decision heartily.

“We were so fortunate to have Carlos stay with us,” Schuler said. “We all wanted him to get the job. He’s brought some new ideas into the program, and it’s been really good so far.”

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Follow ESPN.com’s college sports coverage on Twitter @ESPN_College and on Facebook.

Follow Mechelle Voepel on Twitter: @mechellev

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