After a dramatic national title game decided on penalties, with the Florida State Seminoles claiming their third national title over BYU, the NCAA women’s soccer season is officially finished. It was one that saw plenty of drama throughout and culminated in a fashion befitting of the season that it was. But now with the dust settled, what can we make of the Deacs’ 2021 campaign? They finished with a 16-6 mark and made their returns to both the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2017 and 2018 respectively. It saw the rise of one of the strongest freshman classes in the country and the last ride of a few playersthat were key to bringing the program back to national prominence.
Wake’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with the Big Ten champions Michigan dispatching of them by a 2-0 scoreline in Ann Arbor. It was a game in which Wake was pushing the pace and putting the pressure on Michigan, but after an early flurry Michigan were able to take the lead 15 minutes in on an own goal. After that, in spite of a spirited second half effort and a great many chances, the Deacs couldn’t find a goal to tie the game, and Michigan were able to put it to bed after Meredith Haakenson converted from the penalty spot in the 66th minute. The Deacs kept pushing, but a second yellow card issued to Giovanna DeMarco in the 77th minute signaled the end of Wake’s season, and the final score would be 2-0. It was another game against a big team where Wake seemed to be right on the cusp of stealing a result and just didn’t get there, as they had in a couple of top 10 matchups they played this season. But Wake still had a special year regardless of these results, and it warrants a look at some of the Deacs’ best performers and moments of the year.
Defender of the Year
Wake laid the foundations for their run of success this season on their defense, shooting off to an 8-0 start with 8 shutouts. They finished the season with 12 shutouts, and it was a team effort to get all of them. Kaitlyn Parks was named a Second-Team All-American for her efforts in goal this season. Ryanne Brown was solid throughout the year and took her game up a level over the last 5 or so games, looking like a truly elite right back in that stretch. Sophie Faircloth was strong throughout the year, lining up both at the six and left back and turning in some solid performances in both spots. Kristin Johnson was excellent at the beginning of the year and remained solid against ACC and national competition in her freshman year, both on the ball and defensively. But for me, the Deacs’ defender of the year was Zara Chavoshi. The freshman out of Potomac, Maryland had her growing pains and injury struggles this season, but when she was healthy and at her best she was an absolute lockdown center back. You need not look further than her performance against Duke in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals to see how incredible of a player she was this season for Wake. With three more years of eligibility left, there seems to be a bright future ahead for Chavoshi.
Breakout Player of the Year
There are plenty of players to look at for this award as Wake saw their freshman class make an instant impact and carry the program back to double digit victories for the first time since 2017. The aforementioned Chavoshi and Johnson made their presences felt throughout this year as part of a center back pairing that held some of the best attacks in the country in check. Malaika Meena put up 5 points from her central midfield spot in her first collegiate season, showing a great ability to progress the ball both with her passing and her dribbling. But for my money, the breakout player of the year has to be Nikayla Small. The Canadian freshman was Wake’s midfield general this season, registering a goal and five assists from the 8, a spot where she showed her ability on the ball, her tireless motor, and her defensive abilities. Small’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed, earning her a pair of callups to the Canadian national team and a spot in the All-Freshman Second Team by the United Soccer Coaches of America. This was certainly deserved, and I think and with a few more years of development at Wake, I think she will be one of the top players in college soccer.
Goal of the Year
This was a category for which there could only be one winner, as Sophie Faircloth scored an olimpico against Coastal Carolina on September 9th. It was Faircloth’s lone goal this season, but interestingly enough it was her second olimpico in her now 2-year Wake career, with this one a right footed effort, matching her lefty goal against Duke last season. It was the first of 5 goals in that game for Wake, and another example of Faircloth’s ability to deliver a dangerous set piece.
Moment of the Year
This was another category for which there could only be one winner. Although the 4-3 victory over Virginia Tech was one of the most dramatic and important victories Wake has picked up in some time, and the NCAA Tournament victory against Harvard at Spry was both dominand and satisfying, the victory at Koskinen Stadium against Duke in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals takes the cake. It was a dramatic game on the road against one of the top teams in the country, a Duke team that would earn a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and go to the Elite Eight. Tony da Luz would change his team’s formation to a 4-4-2 diamond, a formation they had not previously played this season, and the Deacs dominated Duke from wire to wire, getting the lead from a Jenna Menta tap-in off of a Nikayla Small feed. Duke found the net late in the second half to tie it on their first real chance of the game, but an instant response from Wake in the form of a Duke own goal set up by Jenna Menta would seal the game. There was an explosion of emotion from the bench as the coaching staff embraced at full time, with Wake progressing to the ACC Tournament Semifinals in Cary. It was a moment that defined Wake’s season, that moment when they finally were able to put a national powerhouse squad to bed, and it felt so much sweeter after the 2-0 loss at home to that same Duke powerhouse.
Player of the Year
Wake had a slew of players that put together impressive seasons warranting consideration for the Deac of the Year. Shayla Smart was the team’s overall leader in goals and points, notching a hat trick against Loyola Maryland, a brace in Wake’s huge win against VT, and a goal and an assist in the Deacs’ tournament win over Harvard. Sofia Rossi put together an impressive 22 point season, including a brace against VT, a goal in the ACC Tournament semis against FSU, and a goal against Harvard. Jenna Menta was the driving force for the Deacs’ attack down the stretch, finding a different gear for the postseason as Wake tried to mount serious challenges for the ACC and NCAA championships. She finished the year with 19 points, with 6 goals and 7 assists. Zara Chavoshi is also a worthy candidate for this prize, as she was the anchor of a Wake defense that only allowed 17 goals in 22 games. However, for me, Wake’s best player this season was its biggest breakout star, freshman midfielder Nikayla Small. Small’s efforts didn’t always show on the scoresheet, but she was the conductor for this Wake team; everything seemed to run through her. On top of this, she also showed great defensive abilities, always seeming to recover after possession was lost or making a timely interception or tackle in the midfield to get Wake back on track. She was incredible this season, and she’ll only get better in her next three years here.
Where Are We Now?
It’s clear that Wake is a team that can make some noise in the ACC going forward, and they will continue to be that team so long as this year’s freshman class continues to develop. They’ll be bolstered by the nation’s 20th ranked (and ACC’s 4th ranked) recruiting class next season. This year’s team was certainly special and showed that Wake Forest can once again compete for the ACC title and make noise at the national level, but this should be far from the last year that Wake is in that conversation with the youth movement that is coming through the squad. The defense is clearly the Deacs’ strongest area going forward, as Second Team All-American Kaitlyn Parks is returning in goal with the partnership of Chavoshi and Johnson ahead of her. Sophie Faircloth will return at left back, and although Wake will certainly miss Ryanne Brown at right back, they look to be in good hands with Tyla Ochoa, who showed a lot of potential in her freshman year. The midfield looks strong with Small and Meena at the 8s, with Faith Adams primed to take a big step after a strong season, replacing Giovanna DeMarco. Next season Wake will need to answer some questions with their forward play, as they’re set to lose the vast majority of their offensive production this season to graduation. However, even with that, this Wake program now has weighty expectations surrounding it after a couple of years where they had struggled.
Points: Shayla Smart (25)
Goals: Shayla Smart (11)
Assists: Jenna Menta (7)
Minutes (Outfield Players): Sophie Faircloth (1,696)
Saves: Kaitlyn Parks (58)