The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (15-5, 7-5 ACC) saw their Cinderella run in the ACC Tournament come to an end last Friday, as the Deacs fell in the semifinals in overtime to the Florida State Seminoles (16-1-2, 9-1-2 ACC) by a 2-1 scoreline. It was a heartbreaker for Wake, who played well in the game, but ultimately came up short to an overtime stunner that sent the then #2, now #1 Seminoles into the ACC Championship Game. The Deacs found out on Monday that they wouldn’t be done with their season quite yet, as they were selected by the committee to participate into the NCAA Tournament as an unseeded team, hosting the Harvard Crimson (12-2-1, 5-2 Ivy) next Sunday. It is their first tournament berth since 2018, when they made a run to the Round of 16. It is another big accomplishment for a program that had some struggles in the last couple of years and has rebounded tremendously this season, but before looking ahead to how they might fare in the Big Dance, let’s take a look back at their most recent game in Cary.
Recap: Florida State
The Deacs made the short journey to Cary on Friday for the first time since 2012, and in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Wake crowd they put on a great performance against an excellent FSU squad.
They rolled out the same 4-4-2 diamond that they had against Duke, and came out just as hot as they did in that game, spending the first fifteen minutes piling the pressure on the Noles. They weren’t able to get a goal in that span though, and the game settled down as FSU began to get on the ball and slow things up, patiently building up through the back. The Deacs sat back in a mid block and looked to strike quickly on the counter. The Noles’ attack was unable to penetrate Wake’s line during this span as the Deacs again put on a wonderful defensive performance. Wake was able to break out on the counter couple of times, but couldn’t quite complete that final ball. That was until the 31st minute, when Sofia Rossi would get to a Nikayla Small pass between the midfield and backline of the Noles and poke it ahead to Jenna Menta, who would get to the ball ahead of Lauren Flynn and turn toward goal. She would then get the better of a shoulder to shoulder challenge with Kirsten Pavlisko, buying her all kinds of space in the box. She would play it back to Sofia Rossi, who would smash it into the roof of the net with her second touch to give Wake the lead. It sent WakeMed Soccer Park into delirium, and the Deacs continued to get the better of the Noles as they fed off the energy from the bench and the crowd. However, although FSU were unable to create much of anything from open play, they found their goal only 11 minutes later on a corner. Yujie Zhao sent an inswinging ball toward Wake’s goal, one that looped over Kaitlyn Parks, who appeared to trip on one of the players inside of her six yard box, and would come out injured after this play. Lauren Flynn would meet the ball powerfully with her head and tie the game back up just before half. As both teams went into their locker rooms for the halftime interval, it felt as if the momentum had shifted, but both teams had the opportunity to reset before the biggest 45 minutes either team had played.
As the second half began, the game settled back into its first half rhythm, with the Deacs settling into more of a mid block while the Noles patiently worked the ball around looking to find the holes in the Deacs’ armor. Wake was still dangerous on the counter, and created a couple of decent chances, including one that looked like it could have been called a penalty (albeit not a terribly egregious one) as Shayla Smart was shouldered in the back while running to the ball at the top of the six. Florida State looked a lot more dangerous in the second half, though, as they were able to work around a Wake team that was struggling to get their foot on the ball and defending for long stretches. It was a very nervy last few minutes as the Noles really piled on the pressure and created decent chances in and around the box, but Wake was able to repel their last ditch attempts for a goal and force overtime. Ultimately, the Deacs wouldn’t be able to weather the storm for much longer, as although the game settled a fair bit in the 6 minutes and 27 seconds of overtime were played, Florida State got one big chance and scored it. In the 97th minute, Kirsten Pavlisko would give it out wide to Jody Brown on the right side of the box, who cut it back to Maria Alagoa at the top of the box. She would find the top corner with her effort and send the Seminoles into the final of the ACC Tournament, and send the Deacs back down I-40.
It’s tough to pick out a player of the match for this game, as both teams didn’t really have players that individually stood out as being head and shoulders above the rest. Jody Brown had a strong game for the Noles and set up the winner. Giovanna DeMarco was a great destroyer in the middle of the park, as was Jaelin Howell for the Noles, also controlling their tempo. My player of the match though was Jenna Menta, who looked dangerous almost every moment she was on the field, getting in behind consistently and creating some dangerous chances, biggest among them her feed to Sofia Rossi on the goal. Overall, the Deacs have nothing to be ashamed about in this one, as they put on another resolute performance that just wasn’t quite enough to beat the eventual ACC champs.
The ACC announced their season and tournament awards last week, and three Demon Deacons were named to All-ACC teams:
All-ACC Third Team: #20 Shayla Smart (FW)
Smart has been a key part of the Deacs’ success this year, playing both as a winger and more recently as a striker in the 4-4-2 diamond. She leads the team with 10 goals, also adding 2 assists for a team leading 22 points. She’s had some major highlights this season, with a hat trick against Loyola Maryland and a brace against Virginia Tech in one of Wake’s biggest wins this year. Her contributions easily warranted this selection, so congratulations to her for this accomplishment.
All-ACC Freshman Team: #4 Nikayla Small (CM)
It’s been an impressive season from the Pickering, Ontario native, who has been the Deacs best player in my opinion. Her performances this year got the attention of the Canadian national team earlier in the year, and now have been recognized by the ACC. She’s logged 1,257 minutes this season and started in every game until she was called up as a training player for the Canadian national team, registering a goal and 5 assists so far this year. Her contributions go beyond the stat sheet, as she has proven herself as one of the better box-to-box midfielders in the conference with her ability to carry the ball into dangerous areas, play it into dangerous spots, but also make recovery runs and win the ball back. She’s been indispensable this season for Wake, congratulations to her on this award.
All-ACC Tournament Team: #9 Jenna Menta (FW)
Menta has found a different gear down the stretch this season, and the Georgetown transfer really made her presence felt in the ACC tournament, and was the sole Wake player selected to the ACC Tournament Team. She was directly involved in every goal Wake scored in their two tourney games, netting the opener in the Duke game, sending the ball in for the own goal to win it in that same game, and assisting Sofia Rossi’s opener against Florida State. She was immense in the tournament even beyond her goal contributions, congratulations to her on this accomplishment.
Monday evening, the NCAA held its selection show where the Deacs found out what their postseason fate would be. For the 21st time and the first time since 2018 they were included in the NCAA tournament field. The Deacs were also given the opportunity to host a tournament game for only the 10th time in their history, this time as an unseeded team. They will play host to the Harvard Crimson, who present an interesting matchup for Wake. The two teams have never played one another before, and Wake, with the benefit of a home game, will be looking to go to 1-0 against a tricky Crimson team and keep pushing for hardware, in this case college soccer’s biggest prize.
This Harvard team is an analytics darling, and are ranked 12th by RPI. They were ranked throughout much of this season, and received votes in every United Soccer Coaches Poll since September 14th. With the 27th best attack and 37th best defense in the country, Harvard are a good squad on both sides of the field. They have a few wins over tournament teams, a 3-2 OT victory over St. Johns early in the season the most impressive among them, along with a 4-1 demolition of MAAC champs Monmouth and a 3-0 bombing of NEC champs Central Connecticut State. They haven’t been without their struggles this year though, tying 3-3 with a Boston College team that won a single ACC game this season, and a pair of losses to Ivy League powers Princeton and Brown, both of whom won 1-0 in Cambridge, Mass. They ultimately finished third in the Ivy behind 7-0 champions Brown and 6-1 runners up Princeton, but received an at-large bid from the committee for their impressive performances throughout the season.
Tactically, the Crimson line up in a 3-5-2 formation and are a team that presses very high and very hard, committing a slew of players forward to win second balls. They don’t mind possessing the ball, and they do play out of the back, but they prefer to attack quickly, trying to catch the other team in transition, stretching them by playing out wide to their wingbacks who fly forward as the attack develops. They are very sharp on restarts, and always seem to have a response to a goal conceded. They pose an interesting matchup for a Wake team that is utilizing a very narrow formation in their 4-4-2 diamond. This could work to their advantage by taking away the middle of the field, or could backfire if it becomes stretched and opens up the whole field for Harvard, who have no trouble creating chances. Where this game can be won for Wake is on the counter, as Harvard commits so many numbers forward, and can be sloppy with the ball as they look to counter so quickly. This leaves them in a lot of situations where they only have four players back, giving the opposition a huge chance on the break, where Wake thrives. It is set up to be an interesting tactical battle between two teams that feel that they have the chance to make a deep run in the tournament, in spite of their seeding.
There are plenty of players to keep an eye out for in this game, but for Harvard I would toward #41 Hannah Bebar as the key player in this one. The freshman attacking midfielder out of Illinois has been a sensation in the Ivy League this season, scoring 5 goals and setting up 10 for 20 points, good for second on the team. She has a soccer brain beyond her years, great feet, and can deliver a great final ball. She is a confident player that makes the right decision and quickly. She serves as the main link from defense to attack for the Crimson, and her performance against Wake will be critical. As for the Deacs, #21 Ryanne Brown would be the player to watch. After a rough game in the rain in South Bend, Brown has been absolutely immense for Wake, especially on the back end. But now against a team that likes to work the ball wide, and will likely force a lot of one-on-one battles on the outside with Wake’s fullbacks, she’ll need to be at the top of her game. She’ll also be important in providing Wake with some width going forward, as the only wide player on her side of the field in this formation. She’s going to be expected to carry a lot of weight on both ends of the field, and that’s why I think her performance is a huge key for Wake against Harvard.
Kickoff is set for 1:00 on Sunday at Spry, and will be the final home game of the season barring any huge upsets in our part of the bracket should we advance. The winner of this game will take on the winner of the game between second seeded Michigan and Bowling Green.