The dust has now settled around the Wake Forest Demon Deacons’ men’s soccer team, with their season ending a little over two months ago and some big roster moves coming down the pipeline last month. The Deacs wrapped up a season that looked full of promise heading in with a 13-7-1 record, starting slow but finishing strong and making a run to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament where they were defeated by the #4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It was an up and down year, but I want to take this opportunity to take a look back at the bright spots of this season.
Defender of the Year
Wake had their struggles in their own third of the field but got some great performances out of their backline. Garrison Tubbs had a solid year at right back, and Holland Rula also put in some good shifts on the left side of the defense, but I think this award comes down to the two guys in the center. Prince Amponsah has really blossomed into an excellent defender after taking the starting center back job from the departed Michael DeShields, but in my opinion, Wake’s defender of the year was one of its captains, Nico Benalcazar. Benalcazar came into this season as a two-year starter with a well-rounded game, and this year showed even more polish and consistency, developing not just as a distributor, which is his primary skill, but also as a defender, in the air, on the ground, and in one on ones. He was consistent throughout the season, and consistently very good, which earned him the nod for me, but only just over Prince Amponsah, who was playing at the same high level that Benalcazar did throughout the year.
Breakout Player of the Year
A few players took great strides this season and stepped into big roles to help lead Wake to some success. Jake Swallen took a big step up in offensive production, finishing second on the team in points, helped by his role as the primary penalty taker, but he had already been performing at a high level when healthy. Chase Oliver had a 4 goal 4 assist season after a rocky freshman season last year, becoming a key attacker in a position where Wake had a lot of question marks. Roald Mitchell came into the fold as a freshman this year and netted 5 goals and assisted 2 coming off the bench in relief of Kyle Holcomb. But for me, the breakout player of the year was goalkeeper Trace Alphin. As a freshman, Alphin seemed to be on the outside looking in for the goalkeeping position, with incumbent keeper Cole McNally having a stranglehold on the starting job to begin the season. However, an injury to McNally would open the door for Alphin to take the job, and he would take it with two hands. He had a bit of a rocky start but settled in and put on some great performances in the net, with his magnum opus coming in Wake’s regular season home finale against Syracuse, where he made a slew of incredible saves. I’m always wary of giving awards like this to goalkeepers, but I think Alphin’s consistent play and shock coup of the goalkeeper spot earned him some recognition.
Goal of the Year
Wake scored a fair few beautiful goals this season, and a few that stick in the mind because of their importance. Roald Mitchell’s sliding effort against FIU comes to mind for the latter category, as it was the goal that would send Wake into the Sweet Sixteen and came at a pivotal moment in the game. Another Mitchell strike fits into the former category, as his opener against Loyola Maryland was a bomb set up by a great turn at the top of the area. Chase Oliver’s goal against Pitt also comes to mind, as he weaved his way around the defense and slotted it away, albeit with the help of a deflection. However, for me the goal of the season had to be Baba Niang’s bomb against Syracuse. It was a huge goal in the context of the game and for the player, as Niang was making his first appearance of the season after a long injury layoff. He showed no signs of rust nor timidity when he came on, as only moments after his introduction into the game he would leather one from 25 yards out off the underside of the bar and in, leaving the keeper motionless. It was an incredible goal that was coupled with a great celebration, with Niang running with joy straight into the arms of Bobby Muuss, who couldn’t have been happier for him. It earned Wake the win in that game and earned Goal of the Year honors.
Game of the Year
Wake had an ample selection of memorable games this season in spite of the perception of this year as “a down year” for the program. They defeated then #5 Pitt at Spry 3-1 in a game that ended what was a poor spell for the Deacs, as Wake dominated the Panthers wire to wire in front of a packed house. They repeated this feat in another hugely memorable game against then #5 Virginia Tech at Spry in another 3-1 contest, and one that continued Wake’s torrid late season form. There were few games more dramatic than the Deacs’ 2-1 win in Chapel Hill, which they earned with a late Jake Swallen penalty kick. However, I think that the game of the year for Wake this season had to be their 3-2 victory in Miami over #13 FIU. It contained all the elements that make a soccer game special, a hot crowd, a back and forth, frenetic pace, and drama at just about every turn. Kyle Holcomb opened the scoring for Wake after a rocky start for Wake, but Mauro Bravo equalized 6 minutes before the half. The Deacs would have a quick answer through Chase Oliver, though, and would go into the half with the lead. FIU tied things up again in the 63rd minute through Matteo Gasperoni, but Wake again had a quick answer, only 24 seconds later as Roald Mitchell slid what would ultimately be the game winner home. The Panthers put up a spirited fight to find an equalizer late, but through some great defending and excellent goalkeeping from Trace Alphin, Wake escaped. It was a game that exemplified the kind of madness that can happen in the NCAA Tournament, and it was a joy to watch as not just a writer but as a Wake Forest fan, or at least it felt that way when the final whistle sounded.
Player of the Year
Wake got some great contributions from a lot of players this season, but a few stood out more than others. Nico Benalcazar and Prince Amponsah both have as good of case as anyone this year, as with their consistency and ability to defend and build out of the back they became the rock-solid spine of Wake’s team this year. Jake Swallen had a very strong campaign in the middle of the field, acting as the link from defense to attack and creating a load of goalscoring opportunities, even in games where Wake struggled. For me though, Wake’s player of the year had to be the senior captain, Kyle Holcomb. Holcomb could be a bit of a mixed bag sometimes, running into cold patches and having his struggles putting chances away, but when it mattered most this season, he put the ball in the net. He finished the year with 28 points, 12 goals and 4 assists, closing out his Wake career with his best ever scoring tally. He was critical to Wake’s success and deserves this recognition.
Where Are We Now?
Wake finds itself in a difficult position this offseason. They’re no longer the young team that they were last offseason, retaining their full squad after a deep NCAA tournament run and an undefeated spring regular season. They’re no longer expected to win “in the next couple of years,” the expectations lie on next season. And yet, they have more holes in the team now than they did at the end of last season. Kyle Holcomb was drafted in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft by new expansion team Charlotte FC. Holland Rula was also selected, going in the third round to FC Dallas, but rather than join them this season he will continue his college career elsewhere in the Triad, joining brother Larson at High Point. The Deacs were dealt a huge blow with the loss of Nico Benalcazar to the pros, as he decided to forego his senior season, signing a homegrown contract with MLS Cup champions NYCFC. With that being said, though, Wake brings in the top recruiting class in the ACC and the third best class in the country and seem to have a strong Kyle Holcomb replacement in Roald Mitchell, and another strong center forward option in Julian Kennedy. This year’s crop of freshmen will have the benefit of spring games and a full offseason to get acclimated to the college game, which last year’s top ranked recruiting class really didn’t receive. Wake’s goal is always to win the national title, and this season they’ll need some brand-new contributors to take them there.
2021 Statistical Leaders
Points: Kyle Holcomb (28)
Goals: Kyle Holcomb (12)
Assists: Jake Swallen (6)
Minutes (Outfield Player): Garrison Tubbs (1,726)
Saves: Trace Alphin (42)