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Women’s Soccer Roundup: Two Big Wins Set Up a Key Clash in South Bend

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After a pair of victories over middling conference foes, the Demon Deacons will face Notre Dame with an ACC Tournament berth on the line.

NCAA SOCCER: NOV 06 ACC Quarterfinal - Notre Dame at Wake Forest Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (14-3, 6-3) recovered from a tough home loss to the now #2 Duke Blue Devils with a pair of conference victories, defeating the NC State Wolfpack at Spry in the Deacs’ home finale last Thursday, and then traveling up to Pittsburgh and defeating the Pittsburgh Panthers. With these two results, the Deacs kept themselves on course for an ACC Tournament appearance, but will have to find a result against #22 Notre Dame in South Bend to guarantee that they will be one of the six teams to have an opportunity to win the ACC title. Before looking ahead to that matchup on Thursday though, let’s take a look back at how the Deacs’ last couple of performances put them in this spot.

NC State

After a disappointing home performance versus Duke the weekend prior, in which the Blue Devils scored twice in the first half and coasted through the second, the Deacs needed to rebound with a victory. NC State looked to be a very tough test going in, as the Pack were riding a 3 game win streak that included victories over then #3 Duke and #4 UNC. Ultimately though, the Deacs would see off the Pack 1-0 in a strong defensive performance that would see them move to 13-3 and 5-3 in conference. This game would end the Pack’s ACC Tournament hopes, sending them to 3-5 in conference and 7-7-2 overall on the season (now 8-7-2 and 4-5). It was a colossal win for Wake against a team that has been a giant killer this season, and one they earned without their best player in Nikayla Small, who was (and still is) with the Canadian national team.

The first half of this one was cagey, with neither team committing numbers forward nor creating significant chances, but Wake was getting the better of the play early, keeping their foot on the ball and looking dangerous on set pieces. State weren’t non-threatening, however, as they were able to break out on the counter a couple of times, primarily through Jameese Joseph, who found herself with chances to take on defenders in space throughout the game. The breakthrough would come in the 38th minute for the home team though, as Sofia Rossi would get the ball at the top of the box and lay it back off to Giovanna DeMarco 25 yards out, who would lash it first time low and hard. It would bounce right before Maria Echezarreta could get to it, with the Pack keeper being unable to handle the bounce as it deflected off of her hands, over her, and into the net. It was one that Echezarreta will feel she should have kept out, but it was still a lead that Wake deserved to have, and one they would take into the half.

The goal gave Wake the confidence to come back out of the break and play on their terms, which they did for much of the second half. They kept the ball for the majority of the next 45 minutes, created some chances through open play and set pieces to close the game out, but they couldn’t put any of them away, although they should have had a golden opportunity to do so when Shayla Smart was brought down in the box. However, there was no penalty given, and as the game got nearer to its conclusion and the Deacs started trying to hold the ball to kill clock rather than looking for that killer blow. State started to get some looks going forward, but ultimately nothing concrete would materialize. The final buzzer would sound, and the Deacs would pick up a Big Four victory against a tough Pack team who could still, feasibly, end up in the NCAA Tournament if they win their last game and are looked upon favorably by the committee. The Deacs as a team were excellent in this one, especially on the back end, but my player of the match here was Shayla Smart, who seemed to get the better of the Pack defense throughout the game and created a few big chances for her teammates and herself. It was far from the only good performance the Deacs had this game, but it was certainly the one that stood out, as Smart was an absolute terror.

Pitt

Wake went into this game knowing that a win and some help would clinch them a place in the ACC tournament, as a UNC loss or draw to Notre Dame would have given the Deacs a tournament berth. However, they couldn’t get caught scoreboard watching, as the Pitt Panthers (10-6, 3-5 at the time) were riding a two game winning streak into this one and still had an NCAA Tournament case to make, and it seemed early on in this game that they were going to make that case. Wake were much better than the Panthers in the opening minutes of this one, and really throughout the first half, but it would be Pitt who would open the scoring in the 15th minute. A Sara Schupansky shot would be deflected by a pair of Wake defenders, with the ball looping toward the top corner. Kaitlyn Parks would palm it onto the crossbar, but Amanda West would get her head to the rebound and put it into the open goal. It gave Pitt some confidence, and they found a couple more dangerous attacks in the half, and were able to ward off Wake’s efforts in their own box with the help of some tremendous goalkeeping from Katherine Robinson. Although Wake was controlling the flow of the game, it felt that Pitt could add a second any time they went forward with the way they were attacking. Neither team would add another before the halftime buzzer however, and the halftime score would be 1-0 in favor of the Panthers, with both teams going into the half knowing that the next goal could very well decide who won the game.

In the second half, the Deacs would come out and blitz the Panthers in the opening minutes, peppering their goal throughout the first five minutes. A penalty would be awarded to Wake in the 48th minute, as Kate McKay would run into the back of Sophie Faircloth, giving Sofia Rossi the chance to equalize from the spot. However, Katherine Robinson would make a save to deny Rossi and keep the Panthers’ advantage. The Deacs didn’t lose their composure, though, and only 3 minutes later Jenna Menta would receive a pass on the left flank from Hulda Arnarsdottir and take it into the box, eventually being ripped down by Ashton Gordon for another penalty kick. This time Arnarsdottir would take it, and she would make no mistake, roofing it to tie the game. Wake had all the momentum at this point, and capitalized on it moments after the first goal when Hulda Arnarsdottir got on the end of a long ball from Sofia Rossi in behind, moving inside and then cutting it onto her left foot for a shot, rattling the crossbar. Shayla Smart would be first to the rebound though, and would put it away for her tenth goal of the season to give the Deacs the lead. After Smart’s goal, Wake would find themselves in the same situation that they did in the NC State game, as they continued to get chances to finish the game and would not put them away, smacking the woodwork a couple of times in the process. Pitt would also have some late opportunities to make Wake regret their misses, including a sequence very similar to the first goal of the game, with Athalie Palomo chipping one onto the crossbar from outside the area, and the rebound coming back out to a Pitt player. However, Kate McKay would head the ball right into the arms of Kaitlyn Parks, who graciously held onto it. Ultimately, the final buzzer would sound before another goal could be scored, and the Deacs would leave Pittsburgh with another key ACC victory.

This was the first game this season that Wake had come back to win from a losing position, and it was a performance that showed the team’s character, even in spite of their inability to score a third goal to close out the game. There were plenty of great Wake performances to choose from, particularly Jenna Menta, Sofia Rossi, and Hulda Arnarsdottir, all of whom were excellent, but player of the match in this game has to go to a Pitt Panther in my opinion. Katherine Robinson was absolutely incredible for the Panthers in this game, especially in the first half when she made some great saves to keep the Panthers in it. Couple those stops with a penalty save in the second half, and she certainly had the most compelling case for player of the game, as Pitt would have likely been down two or three had she not had the magnificent game that she did.

Preview: Notre Dame

Unfortunately, although the Deacs took care of business on Sunday, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-4-1, 6-3) couldn’t do Wake a favor in Chapel Hill, losing to the Tar Heels in double overtime. For the Irish, that game was their third straight loss, all of which came on the road as ND were unable to steal a result from #1 UVA, #2 Duke, or #7 UNC in what is likely the toughest three game stretch any team in the NCAA has had to face this season. Prior to that murderer’s row of games, the Irish were a perfect 6-0 in ACC play, but now see themselves having to fight to qualify for the ACC Tournament in their final game of the regular season. Their poor form should not be misconstrued as meaning that the Irish are an easy game for Wake, especially at Alumni Stadium in South Bend. ND have won all but one of their home games, holding an 11-0-1 mark at their place, with the only blemish being a 0-0 draw with the Indiana Hoosiers. Above all else, the Irish are a tough team to beat, as they don’t give up many goals, and always seem to stick around. They’ve conceded only 13 goals in their 17 games, and have trailed for only 145 minutes of the 1,587 they’ve played this season. They’re a resolute group that have proven near impossible to get a result against at home, but Wake will need to do just that if they want to compete for an ACC Championship.

Tactically, the Irish have lined up primarily in a 4-3-3 this season, and have been direct going forward, either looking for fast counterattacks on long balls out from their defense to their forwards, or by trying to force the ball into the wide areas, creating overloads with their fullbacks high up the field. They are a very effective team on the counterpress, as many college teams are, but when the ball comes out they settle into a deep block, usually only keeping one or two players up for when the ball comes out. Really, it is almost a mirror of what Wake has been playing for a lot of this season, although Wake certainly is a team that is more comfortable on the ball, and a bit less pragmatic than the Irish are defensively. Ultimately, this game will come down to which team will be able to break more quickly and effectively, as Wake will have trouble breaking down Notre Dame when they form their deep block, so they’ll need to be quick in transition to avoid having to do that, while Notre Dame will be looking to make the counterattacking opportunities they are able to spring on their direct balls out of the back into goals so that Wake will have to push even more numbers forward and leave themselves more exposed at the back.

As for my ones to watch in this game, for the Irish it is number 9 Olivia Wingate. Against both Duke and UNC, Wingate was the forward that the Irish were reliant on to create for them, as with her blend of speed and physicality, as well as a direct style of play and good finishing, she is a threat any time she gets the ball. She scored ND’s lone goal in the game against UNC, and has 5 goals and 4 assists this season. Although that is far from the team lead, in the last few games she has looked like the most dangerous player on the field. For Wake, number 9 Jenna Menta is your player to watch. After some growing pains earlier this season, Menta has been a force in ACC play for the Deacs, and has consistently been one of Wake’s best players with her ability to get herself loose out wide. She has 5 goals and 5 assists this season, and although only 1 goal and 1 assist have come in ACC play, her recent form has been tough to ignore, and goes far beyond the stat sheet. She’s been a nuisance, and Wake will need her to continue being one in this game.

This game is the most important Wake has played this season, and they’ll need a win or a draw to guarantee a place in the ACC Tournament. If they don’t get a result though, Wake can still qualify with help from elsewhere, as a Clemson tie or loss to Boston College or a UNC tie or loss to Miami will send them to tournament as well. But with BC and Miami at a combined 2-16 in conference, they’ll likely need to take care of their own business. All of these games will be on Thursday, with Kickoff for the Wake game set for 7:00 in South Bend, and the UNC and Clemson games set to kick off at 7:00 and 5:00 respectively.