The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (16-5, 7-5 ACC) rolled through their NCAA Tournament first round matchup, crushing the Harvard Crimson (12-3-1, 5-2) at Spry in what was a very impressive performance. It was the final home game the Deacs will play this season, as they’ll hit the road in search of a national title, with the first stop being Ann Arbor, Michigan to face off with the University of Michigan Wolverines (16-3-3, 9-2-2 Big Ten). They are the second seeded team in this quadrant of the bracket, and currently are one of the hottest teams in the nation. It should be an incredible contest with the way that both teams are playing, but before we look ahead to today’s huge matchup, let’s take a look back at Wake’s domination in the first round.
This was a game that looked like it would be an awesome matchup on paper, with two teams who really seemed like they were underseeded facing off, both of whom feeling that they could make a deep run in the tournament. Ultimately, it was not a close contest at all, as, excluding a cagey few minutes at the beginning of game, Wake dominated from wire to wire. The first goal came in the 12th minute, as a ball from Hulda Arnarsdottir would find its way to Sophie Faircloth on the outside. She would send it to Shayla Smart at the top of the box, who would tap it back to Sofia Rossi just outside the area, who would hit it lefty on goal, looping it over Hannah Gardner to give Wake the lead. It was an incredible goal and a perfect start for Wake, and one that set the tone for a half that Wake primarily dominated, although things would tighten up a bit more in the last few minutes. Going into the half, although Wake was comfortably controlling the game, they were looking for a second goal to put it away.
The Deacs would come out in the second half and start just as brightly as they did in the first half, punctuating a great start with a goal in the 58th minute, with Jenna Menta playing a lovely early ball in for Hulda Arnarsdottir from deep on the right flank. Arnarsdottir slipped between two defenders and finished with her first touch smartly from just inside the area, doubling the Deacs’ lead. A third goal was added moments later in the 61st minute, as Emily Morris would send a ball in on a set piece and Shayla Smart would head it goalwards from near the penalty spot. It would bounce awkwardly past substitute keeper Anna Karpenko, who was distracted by Giovanna DeMarco’s attempt to get a touch on the ball. That goal would put the Deacs in a position where they were more than comfortable holding onto the ball and seeing the game out, and did just that to see off the Crimson, whose season ended in disappointing fashion, while the Deacs’ wonder year rolled on.
Player of the match in this one was a tough pick. It was an impressive team performance by the Deacs, and one where it felt that each player played just about as well as you could ask them to. Jenna Menta, Zara Chavoshi, Ryanne Brown, and Sofia Rossi all deserve special mentions for their strong performances in this one, but I would say that Shayla Smart was player of the match. She was active, getting loose out wide a few times and making some plays with her back to goal, not to mention the goal and assist she had in this one. Again, though, you would be hard pressed to find a Deac that didn’t play wonderfully, as Wake dominated a very good team to keep their season going.
The Deacs will now be on the road for the next round of the tournament, and they’ll be facing one of the nation’s hottest teams, the Big Ten Champion Michigan Wolverines. With their victory over then #4 (and one of the NCAA Tournament’s 1 seeds) Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament final, Michigan earned a 2 seed in this bracket. They defended their home turf with a 3-0 victory over MAC Champions Bowling Green to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. They’ve been on an absolute tear lately, winning 8 of their last 9 games, including 3 wins over ranked opponents since a 4-1 loss to Rutgers on October 6th. It’s been an impressive season already for Michigan, who missed the tournament entirely last season, but this year look like a real contender for the national title.
Tactically, Michigan line up in a 3-5-2, and they love to have the ball. They’re a very crisp possession team, and patiently work the ball around their defense until they can find an opportunity to get forward. They like to work it out wide, using their wingbacks for width but also dragging their midfielders out into those positions to create overloads. They are a cutback and cross heavy team, and create a lot of chances although they are not an extremely clinical team. They don’t press very high, letting their forwards do most of the pressing while they settle into a mid block defensively. It should be an interesting matchup, especially considering how Wake might approach it. The Deacs have tried to press possession teams like Michigan, but have also been happy to settle into a mid block against top teams, allowing them to have the ball and trying to get things going on the counter. Formation wise, the Deacs’ plans are also unclear, as they have played both a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 diamond in the last few games. At their core, though, Wake are a solid team that can threaten in transition, and that will always keep them in games, especially against teams like Michigan who will likely have the ball for most of the game.
As for players to watch, for the Wolverines the most dangerous player is likely the senior attacking midfielder, #18 Raleigh Loughman. She’s shown great goalscoring prowess alongside her ability as a playmaker this season, netting 9 and assisting 7. She just seems to pop up in the area to finish plays as that late runner that defenders are unable to pick up. She can drop deep to progress the ball or cycle possession as well, showing a strong passing ability and great feet. The whole Michigan attack has been very dangerous this year, but Loughman has been the most productive. As for Wake, #3 Giovanna DeMarco is the player to watch. The senior has only gotten better as the year has gone on in that 6 role, but tonight she’ll have a big task: keeping the Michigan’s attackers, who frequently drop into the midfield, in check. Although she will also have a key role in springing Wake’s counters and acting as a safety valve for the back line, her most important role in this game is as a disruptor. She’s been doing that well lately, and she’ll need to have another good game tonight to keep Wake in the game.
Kickoff is set for 5:00 today, with the winner facing Tennessee in the Sweet Sixteen.