Wake has 3 games remaining, two of which are against NC State and Pitt. Barring a major upset, Wake looks likely to take 6 points from those two games. - me, after the Clemson game
Well that was a jinx if I've ever seen one. NC State defeated the Deacs 2-1 on Halloween, eliminating Wake from the ACC Tournament for the first time in program history (the top 8 schools qualify). The Deacs fell to 10-6-2 overall and 5-6-2 in conference, good for ninth in the conference.
The Deacs now have to see where (and if) they are selected for the NCAA Tournament. Wake's RPI prior to the NC State game was 15th in the country, but it's pretty easy to envision the Selection Committee docking the Deacs significant spots based on the post-Stengel stretch of play. Either way, the Deacs have likely played their final game at home this season.
Here are some of my thoughts on the Deacs season:
Riley: In the preseason scrimmage against Campbell, it became fairly obvious that while Katie Stengel was going to be the focal point of the offense, Ridgik was going to be a major factor. She looked bigger, faster, and more skilled than any Campbell player; she was able to continue that throughout the regular season. Even after Stengel went down, Ridgik posed the only semblance of a consistent offensive threat, including goals in 4 of the 6 post-Stengel games. Her 10 goals on the season place her in a tie for ninth-most in Wake history. While I doubt she'll get an all-ACC honor (the conference is pretty stacked with talent), she should be a preseason selection next year and will be integral to the Wake attack.
The Defense (and Aubrey): By design, the strength of the Wake team is in the defensive alignment: 4 backs and 2 holding midfielders to provide cover. Ideally, the Deacs can hold the ball and probe defenses for weaknesses, with the bedrock on which to fall back. The central defensive pairing of Kim Marshall and Caralee Keppler has been solid all season, and the rotating cast of outside backs (Kendall Fischlein and Megan Curran on the right, Jackie McSally and Jessica Mandarich on the left) has kept the dangerous ACC strike tandems largely in check.
The Freshmen: Fischlein and Sarah Teegarden have been first choice selections, and Caroline Wootten has gotten significant playing time, with Jenna Romano providing capable spot duty on defense and in midfield. Fischlein was spectacular at back for the first half of the season before being a good attacking player post-Stengel (her strength appears to be her positioning and consistency - offensive players can screw up 8 times out of 10 and be heroes, defensive players that screw up 1 time out of 10 get benched). Teegarden has been an absolute monster of a holding midfielder this year, providing a physicality and willingness to make tackles that have helped the defensive effort and successfully marking opposing threats into oblivion. Wootten started the year strong before fading during conference play, but has speed to burn and a knack for being able to time runs off the last defender to get in behind defenses. Romano, again, did not play frequently, but she looked more than capable when she did, and should prove to be a great replacement for the outgoing Keppler.
The Seniors: In no particular order, the senior class of Aubrey Bledsoe, Caralee Keppler, Jackie McSally, Annick McBreyer, Courtney Owen, Chelsea DeLiberto, Lee Page, Ally Berry, Rachel Nuzzolese, and Katie Stengel has been a transformational class. Wake has had success prior to this class, but not on a national scale. This class helped produce a win in Chapel Hill, an ACC Tournament title, a College Cup appearance, and has launched the Deacs into the national college soccer consciousness. Stengel and to a lesser extent Bledsoe have received the bulk of attention individually, but the entire class has provided enormous contributions, from McSally's jack-of-all-trades act to Berry's willingness to fight for every loose ball and Keppler's stellar defensive work to McBreyer's game winning goal in overtime in Chapel Hill last season (arguably the most important in program history). It remains to be seen whether the Deacs can maintain the elite status to which the current crop of players is accustomed, but the bar has been set very high.
Injuries at Striker: The striker position has been the women's soccer equivalent of Maryland's quarterback last season: anyone and everyone has succumbed to injury. Jenai Davidson tore her ACL in the first practice of the season. Rachel Nuzzolese injured her knee against Florida State. Katie Stengel was diagnosed with blood clots halfway through the conference slate. Obviously it's the responsibility of the coaches to adapt to changing circumstances and the players to be ready to contribute on short notice, but... well, let's just say I hope Riley sleeps in a cocoon of bubble wrap.
Physicality and Quickness: One thing I've noticed is that Wake struggles mightily with teams that press high up the field. The offensive system is designed to dominate possession using the defenders as safety valves, but under pressure the system tends to break down. Players just don't look comfortable being harried in their own half, and the results have been disastrous against the teams like FSU, Virginia, and UNC. Stengel provided a capable outlet when she wasn't triple-teamed, but without her it will be imperative that the coaching staff get the players more accustomed to playing in these conditions, either by being more physical on the ball or by playing the ball quickly to break the pressure and take advantage of the resulting spaces created.
Coaching and Negativity: Tony da Luz is by no means a bad coach. You don't go to the NCAA Tournament every season for 14 seasons with a bad coach. However, I think da Luz and his staff could've done a lot more after Stengel went down to adjust. Instead, Wake relied on playing defensively and letting other teams dictate play. The Deacs played well last season with Stengel absent using a swarming midfield attack; while Kristen Meier and Marisa Park graduated, there is enough talent in the midfield that the Deacs could have replicated this approach. Pushing numbers forward is a great way to mitigate the lack of a transcendent striker. I think a little more trust in the defense by shifting from da Luz's preferred 4-2-3-1 to something like a 4-1-3-2 was in order.
Accolades (based on the games that I watched)
MVP: Stengel. Duh. It's easy to nitpick her game (and I have), but she's the best player in program history and Wake went from a top 10 team with her to missing the ACC Tournament without her. Here's hoping she's cleared to play by the time the NCAA's come around (and that Wake makes the field).
MVP, non-Stengel division: With all due respect to Bledsoe, who has again been stellar and will likely be mentioned as an all-American candidate, this is pretty clearly Riley Ridgik to me. 10 goals speak for themselves, including carrying most of the offensive load post-Stengel. Even if she's not likely to be the striker next year, she projects to be the most important piece moving forward.
Best Win: (tie) Portland and Duke. Up until this past week, Portland had 1 loss on the season. And it came after the Pilots were up 2-0 at halftime before Ridgik blasted a cannon shot a minute into the second half to trigger a relentless 3-goal barrage. Duke has come on strong of late, but the Deacs ran roughshod over the Devils for the last 30 minutes in a huge 3-1 win near the beginning of conference play.
Best Goal: A lot of great options. Ridgik in particular had a slew of spectacular goals: her rockets against Portland and UNC, her flick against Clemson. But in terms of a team effort, Ally Berry's game-winning goal against Pitt, wherein Ridgik fooled the entire defense by allowing the ball to pass between her legs onto an onrushing Berry takes the cake.
Best Team Wake Played: Virginia. I saw all of the top ACC teams this season. FSU and UNC have obscene amounts of talent, but didn't generate a lot of great chances. Virginia could've put 5 up on the board pretty easily, and didn't allow Wake any remotely good looks at goal. Completely deserving of that #1 ranking.
Best Player Wake Played: Crystal Dunn, UNC. With apologies to Dagny Brynjarsdottir (FSU) and Morgan Andrews (ND), Dunn is just plain ridiculous. She's fast, she's skilled, and she's a nightmare for opposing defenses because she drops back into midfield, so it's difficult to deny her the ball. There's a reason she's already been called up to the senior national team (as has Virginia's Morgan Brian, who did not stick out amid the plethora of attacking options that Virginia possesses). I think Brian likely gets the PoY nod for UVA's team success, but I would vote for Dunn.
The #12 ranked men's soccer team plays #2 Notre Dame tonight in Spry Stadium for first place in the ACC. Even after a disappointing 2-2 tie against Duke in which the Deacs held a 2-0 lead with 10 minutes to go, the Deacs still control their own destiny in the conference thanks to having a game in hand on Maryland. The Deacs' final game is against Syracuse next Friday; depending on the result of the game tonight, the Deacs may have the opportunity to clinch an outright ACC regular season championship.
1) Maryland 6-1-3 (21 points)
2) Wake Forest 5-0-4 (19 points)
3) Notre Damge 5-1-3 (18 points)
4) North Carolina 4-1-5 (17 points)