For the first time since April 2nd, the Deacs will see action in a competitive match, and it will be in the NCAA Tournament as the 5th seeded Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-2-2) will face off against the Sun Belt Conference champions, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (9-4-2). Both teams were ranked in the final United Soccer Coaches’ Poll, with the Deacs clocking in at 4 and the Chanticleers coming in at 25. But before I preview the matchup, I wanted to review some thoughts from head coach Bobby Muuss and Kyle Holcomb from their pre-tournament press conference this week.
First and foremost, Coach Muuss and the squad appear to have adopted an underdog attitude for this tournament. When being described as one of the College Cup favorites, Coach Muuss said: “We’re not one of the favorites to go to the college cup, if we were we would be the 1-4 seed.” The team also feels extra motivation after losing the opportunity to play for the ACC automatic bid and to win the Atlantic Division with the cancellation of the Syracuse game on April 9th. Kyle Holcomb said: “It sucks that we lost that opportunity, I don’t think anyone was happy about it, but I think it made guys mad and it made guys upset but in a good way, to motivate us, that we lost this opportunity that really we should have had, and even worse that it wasn’t anything that we did wrong, so now guys are saying that we have to do double to make sure we take advantage of every opportunity we can get in the tournament. It’s a tough thing to realize that you can’t do anything about it, but I definitely think the guys responded well and I think it can maybe help us a little bit.”
Coach Muuss was asked about what his young team has grown to understand or needs to understand going forward, emphasizing their need to not just clean up mistakes, but to make new ones: “Mistakes hurt. We need to continue learning from our mistakes, and maybe make new ones. I know that sounds weird, no one wants to tell a team to make mistakes, but if we can start change the mistakes we make, mistakes where we’re getting better at something and now we’re trying to conquer something else, and I think we’ve done that here in training in the last week or two where we see maybe our lack of focus on one thing, if we can really focus on that we can get onto the next. But I do think that it’s been evident that we’ve dodged some bullets, with some silly mistakes or being careless or maybe not paying attention to details that for an older group you wouldn’t see.”
Coach Muuss also made some light of this, saying: “It just gets to a point where I’m mad, but I just make jokes about it, because you just can’t get mad at every mistake. If I did my head would probably pop off and I’d walk away and you’d never see me again. So we make some light of it and the guys have dealt well with it, there’s been some good banter because of it. Some boneheaded mistakes, some carelessness, but it’s been a fun group to coach to be fair.”
He also spoke about the advantage of having a much younger team this Spring, saying that the team’s mentality is a big strength: “And an advantage I see is that we are a much more blue collar team than we’ve ever been and we’re scrapping and we’re grinding and we’re fighting and that’s great. If you put that scrapping and fighting and grinding with some of the most talented teams we had here at Wake, that’s a recipe for great success. So we keep trying to implement this in training, the idea that if we bring that blue collar mentality and keep competing and we scrap and we grind and we fight, and we add some of the football that we know we’re capable of playing, that’s the exciting part. Seeing it come together, and I hope we see it come together on Sunday so people can see what this group is really capable of. And if it doesn’t, I hope we can continue to have that mentality to grind and advance and have another week or another few days to prepare for next Thursday.”
Kyle Holcomb also touched on team mentality in response to a related question about their ability to come back and get wins from losing positions, saying: “It’s great that we’ve been able to get points but I don’t think that’s the situation we want to be in, especially in a tournament when it’s that much harder, but I am proud of this group, and I think it has a lot of self belief, a lot of hope. Maybe it’s naivete maybe it’s stupidity but we go down a goal against Notre Dame, tie it up, go down another goal, I mean that was a dagger of a goal to have that second one, but the group kept fighting I didn’t see anybody put their heads down or anybody falter at all. Not really where we want to be especially in the tournament but I’m proud of this group to think that we can do it, and even if it’s a hard fought 0-0 I think that we can keep fighting and not get tired and if other teams are not believing in themselves I believe this group won’t ever quit, so I think that’s a good thing.”
Both Coach Muuss and Holcomb emphasized the difference between NCAA Tournament play and the regular season, with Holcomb (one of three players on the team with tournament experience) saying this about the difference between the stages: “People need to understand that it’s a different mentality you need to win games in the tournament. Every team is playing win or go home, and almost no one on this team and none of the starters have played in an NCAA tournament. We just need to make sure we don’t get complacent. Guys might be thinking, we haven’t lost this spring, and it’s just Coastal Carolina, but they’re a good team. Guys just need to stay locked in and understand that you can’t make mistakes in the NCAA tournament, you make one and it could be over.” Coach Muuss had a similar sentiment, saying: “Being down a goal in the NCAA tournament is like being down 2 or 3 in the regular season. You get a goal, it gets that much harder.”
Finally, Coach Muuss would state the ways that this Demon Deacon squad is well suited for the tournament: “I think the positive thing to look at is that we’ve been stingy in terms of conceding, but at the same time, in all of our games, win, lose, or draw, all year we’ve generated chances. So it’s always one or two, and I think in these tight games, that’s all it takes. You don’t get a ton of really good chances in the postseason, and obviously I’m sitting next to a guy who, if he does get those chances, we’re relying on him to finish one of those and put us in the game knowing that, if we score two, there is a really good chance for us to win the game or at we’re not losing the game, so that’s ultimately one of our goals.”
Coach Muuss summed up the Chanticleers best during the press conference: “They’re extremely good on restarts, they’re a big team, they’re an experienced team, they’re a mature team. They got some age, some size, some experience, and some belief. One thing they have going for them is that they won the automatic bid in the fall, so they used the spring to develop and try new things and take some different looks at different things. And they also do a really good job at getting the ball wide and getting early service into the box, so we have to be really cautious about matching up, and they score goals. They also have an experienced goalkeeper with a lot of confidence as well. They’ve all been in the NCAA tournament. Like I said before, Coastal Carolina is an NCAA tournament mainstay, most of the time they win their conference championship, so I’d say the one thing we’re up against is belief and a large bit of maturity and experience.”
Coastal sit at 2-5-0 all time against Wake, but both of their wins came at Spry, where they hold a 2-3-0 record. Coastal comes into this game after a mediocre Spring window, but having already secured the automatic tournament bid in the fall, they experimented a bit more with their team. They went 3-3-1 in this window and have lost their last 2 games, but picked up a big win against the UNC Wilmington Seahawks, who were ranked 9th when Coastal beat them, although they would ultimately miss out on the tournament altogether. In the fall however, this team was excellent, going 6-1-1 across conference regular season and postseason play, winning the Sun Belt title in a 4-3 penalty shootout victory against Georgia State after a 0-0 game. They have gone to overtime on four occasions this season, and haven’t lost yet.
In terms of a tactical setup, they play a traditional 4-4-2, and trying to work the ball to their wide players when going forward. They are a very strong team in the air and like to press high up the field with their two forwards and their wingers, with the press usually most intense at the midfield line. If the press is beaten they will settle into a very organized mid block. They are a very well drilled team that get into every challenge and win a good amount of their duels. They are also a very good team on set plays and utilize long throw ins to exploit this, which could be problematic for Wake, as they struggled with those against Notre Dame. Their goalkeeper, Tor Saunders, is also a point of significant strength, with his performances garnering the admiration of Nashville SC, who took him in the third round of the MLS SuperDraft.
According to Coach Muuss, Wake will have all but one of their players available for this game, with Aristotle Zarris still unavailable.
Ones to Watch
#7 Claudio Repetto (FW): For Coastal Carolina, this game will likely be one in which they are reliant on set pieces, and the big center forward Repetto is the target for a lot of these. The senior transfer from NAIA Grand View University sits second on the team in goals with 4, although it should be noted that he has scored 3 in the spring while top goalscorer Marcelo Lage hasn’t netted in this window. Repetto is the kind of center forward that coaches love to have: great energy, athletic, good in the air, a good finisher, and holds the ball up well. If Wake continues to struggle on long throws, Repetto could have a big game with his ability in the air.
#20 DZ Harmon (W): Harmon is a player that, after watching game footage, I was shocked to find hasn’t registered a point this season. Harmon is another senior transfer, in his third year with the Chanticleers after an 8 goal, 1 assist season with Division II Clayton State. He has very quick feet and has great speed, as well as good strength for his size. The final ball does appear to be a bit of an issue, but his interchanges with right back Noah Glorioso always look dangerous. He is also the long throw-in taker for this team, so he will be key in deciding this matchup if he can deliver some throws deep into Wake’s box.
#17 Omar Hernandez (W/MF): Although it is unclear where he will play in this game, Omar Hernandez will still be a key player in this one for Wake. In Wake’s last win against Louisville in overtime on April 2nd, Hernandez scored both goals. He also scored in Wake’s exhibition match with Villanova on the 16th on a free kick. Aside from all the things that make Hernandez a good player, a great left foot, good playmaking ability, good feet in tight spots, a solid finishing ability, and a killer instinct for set pieces, one intangible stands out for him: Hernandez has been the man for the big moments for Wake this year. He’s scored two late game winners this season, one against the Duke Blue Devils late in regulation and a penalty against the Louisville Cardinals in overtime. He also assisted Kyle Holcomb’s winner in overtime against the UNC Tar Heels. When Wake has needed a big moment, Hernandez has often come up.
#27 Prince Amponsah and #23 Nico Benalcazar (DF): If Wake’s lineup remains the same from the Clemson game, then Garrison Tubbs will be starting at right back while the undersized Benalcazar and Amponsah will slot into the center back spots. If that is the case, they will have their hands full, as this game will likely require them to win a lot of balls in the air against players far larger than they are. It will be a real challenge for them to be able to limit the much larger Coastal attackers, especially in the air, but they’ll absolutely need to for Wake to pick up a win here. They’ll also be tasked with building out of the back for this Wake team against another team that seems to press pretty doggedly with its forwards, similar to both Clemson and Louisville, so the freshman and sophomore will need to keep their nerve against Coastal’s energetic press.
This game will take place at Spry, which Kyle Holcomb says is a huge lift: “I think it’s huge, especially for the young guys who haven’t experienced the postseason there, even though it’s not the full experience, it’s something. And being able to play in front of fans even if it’s 400 people there there will still be people in the street, there will be people yelling and screaming, the congregation will be loud, and I just think being able to play here and see all those people who are behind you and seeing them showing out to support you, I think that’s huge for us and it’s huge for the young guys to see that, all these people that we play for, that it’s not just each other, it’s this whole community.”
Kickoff is set for 8:00 on tonight.