JOHN WILLIAMS ATHLETIC COMPLEX/SOUTHERN PINES — Friday evening’s match between the Carolina RailHawks and the UNC Tar Heels at Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines was the climax to the RailHawks’ three-day Sandhills retreat. Unfortunately, it appeared the RailHawks’ minds were still somewhere along the back-nine of Pinehurst No. 8 as they met defeat by a score of 2-0. Moreover, the RailHawks may have lost far more than a preseason friendly.

A modest, but energetic crowd braved the elements and, together with the setting, helped conjure the pleasant feel of an autumn high school football game. With back-to-back matches scheduled against the Tar Heels and the Montreal Impact back at WakeMed Soccer Park Saturday night, Coach Martin Rennie fielded a lineup that included two trialists teamed with a set number of roster players, most of whom will not likely see repeat action against Montreal.

The RailHawks’ performance was as frigid as the cold snap that blew into the area mere hours prior to kickoff. Billy Schuler put the Tar Heels on the board in the 15th minute when he muscled past Brad Rusin’s mark and poked a slow bounder past a statuesque Nic Platter.

Two minutes later, the takedown of a streaking Sainey Touray failed to grab the referee’s attention, but it left Touray lying in a heap just outside the 18 yard box. Touray was helped off the field, replaced by Andriy Budnyy. According to Rennie, the injury to Touray “looks pretty bad.” He will undergo tests to determine the extent of the damage, but early indications suggest a torn hamstring that could keep the RailHawks’ latest signing out of action for weeks or even months, depending on its severity.

After 25 minutes of doldrums, the RailHawks finally began traversing the attacking third, if only to explore the outer reaches of the goal. In the 27th minute, Caleb Norkus’ off-course header preceded a misplaced poacher’s effort from Gregory Richardson. Five minutes later, another Norkus miss was followed by a bicycle kick from Sallieu Bundu that sailed left of the woodwork. Another Bundu miss brought the first half to a merciful close.

After the referee turned a blind eye to an apparently offside Shuler in the 57th minute, the ensuing collision with Platter produced a yellow card for the RailHawks’ goalkeeper and a penalty kick that the Tar Heels’ Michael Farfan blasted into the back of the net.

Matt Watson’s entry in the 59th minute seemed to generate more scoring opportunities for the RailHawks, just as in last week’s friendly against the New England Revolution. This time, however, none of their efforts touched nylon, including a clear side-angle shot by Watson in the 87th minute.

“You have to credit UNC,” said Rennie. “I think they really played well, they were real aggressive and took their chances when they came.

“Tonight, we missed quite a few scoring chances, but I think that’s part of preseason. You’ve got to remember we’re playing two games in consecutive days, so we can’t play the same players two days in a row because we’re in preseason and they might get hurt. So, we’re trying to manage our way into the game tomorrow night [against Montreal].”

Rennie also commented on the curious case of Thomas Stewart, the former Northern Ireland Under-21 captain and Wolverhampton Wanderer who recently left Derry City of the Irish First Division to join the Railhawks. However, after netting a goal in the March 10th scrimmage against N.C. State, he has not been seen on the field since, and online reports out of Ireland indicate he is on his way back to play for the Shamrock Rovers. “Basically, after he arrived here, he had a couple of things happen back home with his family that made it difficult for him to focus on what was going on here,” explained Rennie. “With his mind there and him really wanting to be there, I didn’t feel it was right to keep a young kid like that away from home and make him be here. So, we gave him the opportunity to go back and take care of those things.”

Saturday’s preseason match against Montreal kicks off at 7:00 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park.