NCAA Tournament run ends for men’s soccer

After beating FIU in the first round, Wake Forest loses to Notre Dame in a gritty Sweet 16 matchup


Charles Horn, Staff Writer

Fighting until the very end, the Wake Forest men’s soccer team ended their season in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen as the Demon Deacons fell 2-0 to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Dealing with injuries to starters throughout the season, the Deacs rebounded from disappointing early losses to mount a terrific season.

At points, it seemed like Wake Forest’s streak of 10 straight tournament qualifications was in jeopardy — until the team filled with fresh talent and veteran stars gelled to put together a dominant home stretch.

The Deacs began the ACC tournament by hosting Mercer, who stunned the assembled fans at Spry Stadium with a spectacular long-range strike that pinged off the post into the net. Senior Kyle Holcomb then restored order with his 10th goal of the season, connecting with sophomore Hosei Kijima who ran rampant down the right flank.

In the second half, Wake Forest’s relentless front line proved too much for Mercer, who desperately tried to patch holes as wave upon wave of Wake Forest attackers attempted to win the match.

It was Holcomb again who proved to be decisive, cutting in on the right-wing and beating the keeper. From then on, it was the Trace Alphin show. The freshman keeper denied a late Bears equalizer and sent the Deacs to Miami for a clash against 13th-seeded Florida International University.

Against a red-hot FIU, Wake Forest abandoned their usual possession dominant style in favor of a conservative counter-attacking approach. Missing junior starters Omar Hernandez and Takuma Suzuki, the shorthanded Deacs battled for every ball, seeking a shot at tournament glory.

Holcomb continued his First Team All-ACC form with an early goal against the run of play, silencing the raucous Panther crowd. FIU equalized late in the first half, but the Deacs immediately responded with a goal from sophomore Chase Oliver, who hit his trademark celebratory flip for the first time since September.

In the second half, the Deacs consistently overcame FIU’s comeback attempts.

Near the beginning of the half, FIU equalized in the 63rd minute, but 26 seconds later sophomore Garrison Tubbs charged forward from right-back and assisted freshman Roald Mitchell for his second goal of the year.

Alphin was again sensational and kept the Panthers at bay despite FIU recording three times as many shots on goal as the Deacs. However, all six of the Wake Forest shots were on target, a decisive finishing performance that set the team on the road to the Sweet-16.

The journey would stop there, but not without a valiant performance that showcased the team’s tenacity against a formidable, in-form opponent in Notre Dame.

The Irish marauded their way through the ACC tournament, narrowly beating Louisville on penalties before beating two top teams in Pitt and Duke. Notre Dame’s success is largely reliant on their defense, which had improved in quality. The Irish have reached a new level of play in the postseason and have not conceded a single goal since the ACC tournament began.

For a Wake Forest team missing a prime contributor in Hernandez, still out from a knee injury he sustained against Duke in the ACC tournament, the Irish proved to be a stern test. Holcomb provided flashes of hope, registering the Deacs’ only shot on goal early in the first half, but was continually stymied by a seemingly endless onslaught of Irish defenders.

Notre Dame took the lead in the 19th minute after a moment of individual brilliance from Mohamed Omar, who pivoted away from the freshman Julian Kennedy and bent in a curling effort that flew past a leaping Alphin. From then on, Notre Dame buckled down, denying Wake Forest any clean shots on goal and stymying all prospective attacks. Hernandez was missed, as his on-the-ball abilities and set-piece prowess had been key aspects of Wake Forest’s offensive structure.

Notre Dame doubled their lead in the second half, with a looping cross finding an unmarked Matthew Roou whose header proved too much for Alphin.

Following the game, head coach Bobby Muuss, who has made the tournament every season as head coach of Wake Forest, emphasized the defensive strength of the Irish, saying, “Their box defense is as good as I’ve seen… We just couldn’t break them. They bent but they did not break.”

With a strong underclassmen core, the team seems set for the future. Yet the end of the season does mean a farewell to seniors Holcomb, Holland Rula, and Aristotle Zarris, whose 2019 knee injury sustained against Louisville ultimately ended his collegiate career. With his goal against FIU, Holcomb became tied for the seventh-most goals in program history. Rula is a mainstay at left-back, establishing his place over the last three years, starting 75 matches in total.