The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (14-4, 6-4 ACC), despite a loss in South Bend on Thursday, have qualified for the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2017. They owned the tiebreaker over UNC going into the game with Notre Dame, with the first tiebreaker in the ACC standings being record among common opponents. The Deacs have NC State and Virginia Tech to thank for their ACC Tournament berth, as the Pack and Hokies both got a result against the top ten ranked Tar Heels while Wake beat both, giving them the edge that will send them to Durham this weekend. The Deacs will certainly be disappointed to have to travel for a tournament game, especially against the #2 ranked Blue Devils. With that being said, though, their qualification this year is a huge milestone for the program, and hopefully seasons like this can become more and more frequent as the Deacs look to return to the heights they reached in the early 2010s.
Recap: Notre Dame
With all the positives that can be said about where Wake is this season, it could easily be lost in the shuffle that the Deacs lost their last game of the season in South Bend. The #22 Irish (13-4-1, 7-3 ACC) needed to avoid defeat in this game to ensure their qualification for the ACC Tournament, and they were able to do just that in a 2-1 victory over the Deacs in a game that, frankly, the Deacs deserved more out of. It was a good performance from Wake overall, who controlled the flow of the game throughout, kept their foot on the ball, and created a fair few chances, but the Irish took advantage of the few chances that they created and would see off the Deacs in a performance that was just good enough to get them over the line. The Deacs will be kicking themselves after this one, as it was certainly a game that was there for them to win, and the win would give them another statement game for the NCAA Selection Committee to look at. They didn’t, though, and now are 2-2 in their last 4 and traveling to a very difficult road environment against arguably the best team in the nation. But before we look ahead at that matchup, let’s take a look back at this one.
In the first half, especially in the first ten minutes, Wake was really putting the pressure on Notre Dame, getting some good possession in the Irish half and a couple of decent chance. However, the Wake backline was making some sloppy plays in their own half, and doing that against a team like Notre Dame that is so good at converting the few chances that they get could lead to problems. This sloppy play would result in a goal for the Irish in the 20th minute, as a free kick from around midfield right along the sideline would be played through to Sammi Fisher as the Deacs weren’t sharp enough on the restart. Fisher rode Lyndon Wood’s challenge and ran in on goal, sliding it by Kaitlyn Parks to give the Irish the lead. It was a disappointing goal for the Deacs to give up, especially with the way that they were playing. The Deacs stayed on the front foot for most of the half, but Notre Dame were still presenting danger on the counterattack. The score heading into the half was 1-0 Irish, but it felt as if another goal was coming in the game, and whoever got it would ride that momentum into a win.
The rain started pouring down in South Bend for the start of the second half, and the Deacs continued to play the game on their terms. They would have a few chances denied by Ashley Naylor, who had a wonderful game for the Irish, but the Deacs would finally break through in the 70th minute. Shayla Smart passed the ball back into the middle of the field near the top of the box for Sofia Rossi, who would take two touches to set her shot up, and rip one on frame. The shot took a massive deflection and squirted by Naylor to tie the game back up, and seemingly give the Deacs all the momentum. The Irish seemed to find a different gear after the goal though, and kept the Deacs mostly hemmed in their end for the next 10 minutes, forcing the Deacs into some awkward defensive moments. They would find the winner in the 83rd minute, with Maddie Mercado sending in a corner right at the keeper Parks. Parks was unable to make a solid play on the ball with the traffic inside the six yard box, and ultimately would punch it into her own goal. The goal was credited to Mercado, who put in a near impossible ball to deal with, and left Parks in such an awkward spot. The Deacs pushed late for the equalizer, but wouldn’t find it, and the Irish would come out with a big win to secure their qualification for the ACC Tournament.
Player of the match in this one is tough to pick, as it felt as if neither team had an individual player that was clearly head and shoulders above the rest, with Olivia Wingate, Jenna Menta, Brianna Martinez, and Nikayla Small all having good games, but I have to give it to Notre Dame keeper Ashley Naylor. Naylor was exceptional in this game, denying 10 shots by the Deacs, and only allowing a goal on a huge deflection. It was a game that both teams had the opportunity to win, and it felt as if Naylor was the difference in getting the Irish the three points. It sets up Notre Dame with a home clash against the Clemson Tigers, and sends the Deacs down Tobacco Road to face a Big Four foe.
With that result, the Deacs dropped to 6th in the ACC and will have to play a road game to advance in the ACC Tournament, and there are few tougher road games in college soccer than traveling to Durham to take on the #2 team in the nation, the Duke Blue Devils (13-2-1, 7-2-1 ACC). This isn’t Wake’s first meeting with Duke this season, as they played them at Spry on October 15th in a game that the Blue Devils dominated and won 2-0. Duke is playing the best soccer they have all season right now, and are winners of their last 5 games, including a win over then undefeated and #1 ranked Florida State. It is a very difficult game for Wake, and one that would absolutely make their season if they won it.
Tactically, the Blue Devils line up in a 3-5-2 and press doggedly with their forwards, which unsettled the Wake defense in the first game between the teams, as they committed some ugly turnovers in their own half, including one that led directly to a goal. That first game was an ugly one for Wake, and one they’ll need to get over. The key for Wake in this game will be getting the ball out wide and stretching out the Blue Devils. They were absolutely crushed in the first half as they tried to work the ball through the middle, but in the second half, when Wake had more success going forward, they were able to get the ball out wide to their fullbacks and wingers to put some pressure on the Duke backline and midfield. There are a couple of players to watch in this game, and for the Blue Devils the one to keep an eye on is number 18 Michelle Cooper. The freshman out of IMG killed the Deacs in the first game, scoring the first goal in the Deacs’ last meeting against Duke. She has 10 goals and 3 assists this season, and is a serious contender for ACC freshman of the year. She holds the ball up very well for a smaller player, makes great runs to stretch the defense, and shows a soccer IQ beyond her years. As for the Deacs, number 20 Shayla Smart is the one to look out for, as she has returned to form in the last couple of games, and is the Deacs’ leader in goals this season. Wake will need to rely on their wide players to create for them, and Smart is maybe the Deacs’ most dangerous threat out wide.