⇒ Also this weekend: “The Bull City Gridiron Classic: Duke vs. NCCU

This week, summer changed to fall, the Durham Bulls’ championship season finally ended, the Carolina Hurricanes continued their preseason tune-up games, and the ambitious UNC Tar Heels football team ascended a couple more rungs up the college rankings.

It’s also the beginning of an exciting playoff run for the Carolina RailHawks soccer team. All season long, Martin Rennie’s team has been a model of consistency, always among the top three in the 11-team first division of the United Soccer League and never losing more than two games on the bounce.

It’s been a challenging season in some ways. The team saw several high-profile foreign signings go awry due to injuries and work clearance issues. There are also off-the-field issues concerning the ownership of the leagueand the RailHawks are in the thick of those discussionswhich we’ve been following on Triangle Offense, the Indy‘s sports blog. Through it all, the 34-year-old Rennie has guided his team to what is a remarkable turnaround from last year’s underachieving, playoff-missing squad. His RailHawks, along with first-place Portland, have the stingiest defense in the league and have scored 24 more goals then they’ve allowed, second only to Portland (and far ahead of the next team, Puerto Rico).

In the season’s latter stage, the squad made two propitious acquisitions that have boosted its sometimes sluggish offense: Guyanese winger Gregory Richardson, who debuted in July, has scored six goals, while Matthew Delicâte, a prolific scorer who is on loan from USL-2 Richmond for the rest of the season, has been an electric super sub in his first two games.

On Thursday, Sept. 24, the RailHawks open the two-leg, three-round playoffs at Vancouver, facing a Whitecaps team that they’ve tied twice and beaten once in the regular season. On Sunday, Sept. 27, the RailHawks return to Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park for the second leg against the Whitecaps. The winner, which will be determined by the aggregate score over the two games, will then proceed to play a two-leg semifinal tie with either Puerto Rico or Rochester.

I spoke with Rennie Monday evening as he and his team prepared for their flight to Vancouver the next morning. Rennie is taking 18 players, Delicâte among them, to Vancouver, although the starting lineup won’t be unveiled until game time. The Whitecaps, who will be moving to the MLS in the 2011 season, will be a formidable opponent despite finishing seventh in the league, Rennie said.

“They won the championship last year,” Rennie noted. “They’re a big team with big players, and very well-organized.”

Foremost among the Vancouver bruisers is Charles Gbeke, an imposing physical presence who scored 12 goals this season, but Rennie is quick to note another player who concerns him: “It’s not just Gbeke, but Marlon James, too. He doesn’t have as many minutes but he has a very good scoring record [of nine goals in 17 games].”

Rennie says that even in the face of postseason excitement, he’d tried to help his team maintain the composure that has carried it this far. “The two main things are, first, that we have to have a lot of confidence. The second thing is that we need to make sure everyone understands their jobs. Staying focused is the key thing.”

Thursday night’s 10:30 p.m. game against Vancouver can be viewed at www.usllive.com. Visit www.carolinarailhawks.com for information about Sunday’s 5 p.m. game.