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Dec 18, 2008

A look back at the 2008 college season

The curtain officially came down on the American soccer season last weekend, when Maryland beat North Carolina 1-0 to capture the 50th NCAA championship. Naturally, the Terrapins' triumph was the biggest news of the collegiate campaign, but it was also just one of many intriguing story lines the college game provided in 2008. If you missed the rest, here's your cheat sheet, just in time for finals.

Biggest Surprise: North Carolina

When UNC dropped five straight to back into the NCAA tournament, Tar Heels coach Elmar Bolowich admitted he had doubts about how long his team could last on the national stage. Then the Heels won four games -- including a monumental upset of top-seeded defending champ Wake Forest in the semis -- to advance to the final, which they lost to their ACC rival by the slimmest of margins. Now boasting valuable experience from their memorable postseason run (and with former U.S. U-17 standouts Billy Schuler and Sheanon Williams both back in Chapel Hill in 2009), a College Cup return won't surprise Bolowich -- or anyone else.

Biggest Disappointment (team): UCLA

After a slow start, UCLA found its feet and appeared set to make a second late-season title run in three years. Instead, the Bruins were bounced by Cal Poly, at home, in their tourney opener. It's become an all-too-familiar ending in Westwood. Other than that surprise runner-up finish two seasons ago, UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo hasn't had much luck maximizing the potential of one of the nation's most storied programs. Maybe it's not fair to expect so much -- especially when many of the school's top-end recruits leave early for the pros. Still, plenty of programs have done much more with a lot less.

Biggest Disappointment (player): O'Brian White, F, Connecticut

After White scored 23 goals and won the Hermann Trophy in 2007, many observers suggested the Jamaican-born striker should cash in with the pros rather than return to UConn for his senior year. Sure enough, White found the target only six times in 14 tilts before a knee injury torpedoed his (and the Huskies') season.

Best Pro Prospect: Omar Gonzalez, D, Maryland

Just a junior, Gonzalez is blessed with the physical tools (6-foot-5, 206 pounds) that pro scouts salivate over. If he does decide to forego his final season, the former U.S. U-17 national team forward-turned-center back could be the top pick in next month's MLS SuperDraft. Many have compared the Dallas native to giant Columbus Crew rook Andy Iro. That's a compliment, but some are convinced Gonzalez has better feet and is quicker than the former UC Santa Barbara captain.

Expansion Seattle Sounders FC is slated to select first and its coach, ex-Crew boss Sigi Schmid, is a big fan of Iro, who he took sixth overall in 2008. You'd think Schmid would probably jump at the chance to land Gonzalez, even if he's also likely to attract interest from teams in Europe as well as Mexico, where his parents were born.

Best Player: Steve Zakuani, Akron

After leading the nation in scoring with 20 goals and seven helpers, Zakuani is the clear frontrunner for the Hermann Trophy. The other finalists are quality Wake Forest seniors Marcus Tracy and Sam Cronin, but if Zakuani doesn't win in a landslide it would be a travesty. If he does, the 6-foot forward from Zaire (via London) would become just the third sophomore to earn college soccer's highest individual honor, which the Missouri Athletic Club will award in St. Louis on Jan. 9.

Like Gonzalez, Zakuani is also a solid pro prospect. His seven game-winners this year suggest he has a knack for netting important goals, and he already has a more impressive pedigree than most scholastic stars: He trained in Arsenal's youth system until he was 15 and his older brother has played professionally in England since 2002.

Best Rookie: Casey Townsend, Maryland

After being named Michigan's Mr. Soccer two year running, Townsend headed to College Park last January. Spending that extra semester on campus certainly paid off. Townsend started every game for the newly crowned champs, finishing second on the team scoring charts with 11 goals and four assists.

All-America XI

GK Neal Kitson, Sr., St. John's

D Omar Gonzalez, Jr., Maryland

D Yohance Marshall, Sr., South Florida

D Ike Opara, Soph., Wake Forest

M Andrei Gotsmanov, Sr., Creighton

M Jeremy Hall, Jr., Maryland

M Corben Bone, Soph., Wake Forest

M Sam Cronin, Sr., Wake Forest

F Mike Grella, Sr., Duke

F Marcus Tracy, Sr., Wake Forest

F Steve Zakuani, Soph., Akron

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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