(1) Wake Forest vs UCF – Winston-Salem, North Carolina – 7:00 PM
08.21 – UCF 0 – 1 Wake Forest
Three long months ago, Wake Forest traveled to Orlando for what, at the time, could be regarded as a nice acid test for themselves and hosts UCF. In the end, Wake Forest prevailed in a 1-0 contest that ultimately both sides could feel relatively pleased with. The Demon Deacons had done well to come on the road and pick up a nice non-conference win. UCF had lost but had hardly looked bad in the process, and their fine defensive work would look better and better as Wake Forest proceeded to cut teams apart throughout the season. The odds of a rematch looked quite slim though with both teams in cocoons of regional rivals and unlikely to be grouped together early in the tournament. They looked slimmer still as UCF entered the Big Dance reeling from a spotty Conference USA campaign, while Wake Forest entered as a #1 seed after coming back to life in the ACC Tournament after a rather unconvincing end to the league campaign. Both sides would have difficult second weekend tests with challenging groupings. Many expected Wake to come out of their regional. Few could say the same about UCF. While the Demon Deacons turned back Boston University and Penn State, a stunned nation looked on as the fiery Golden Knights first dumped out hosts Florida on Friday night before causing another shock by downing North Carolina on penalties. And so Wake Forest does end up with a rematch at home on Friday night…just not the one they might have been expecting.
Wake Forest – Personnel Breakdown
Goalkeepers – Sophomore Aubrey Bledsoe staked her claim as one of the most promising young American goalkeepers in the college ranks last season as a rookie with some dazzling displays in goal for the Demon Deacons. There would be no second-year slump for the Cincinnati as she continued to flourish in Winston-Salem. Already a U.S. U23 international and looking like a potential full international for the USWNT for the future. Bledsoe has also proven her mettle in penalty shootouts in her young collegiate career and is an undoubted assed if the match has to be settled from the spot.
Defenders – Size-wise, one of the biggest back fours in the country with every player at least 5’7″ and a pair of defenders coming in at 5’10”. The Demon Deacons big back four was again one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, despite not boasting a senior among the group. The rock at the heart of the team’s defensive efforts is junior Caralee Keppler, who continues to impress in her second season after transferring from West Virginia. Most importantly, Keppler’s managed to stay healthy this year, something that’s evaded her in two previous seasons. Offense seems most likely to come from junior Jackie Logue, a criminally underrated defender for the Demon Deacons who is also a threat going forward. The Mount Laurel native had a weekend to remember last week, with goals against Boston University and Penn State, the former being a game winner, while adding an assist as well against the latter. Towering freshman Kim Marshall has certainly done well to lock down a starting spot as a rookie and has shown flashes of offensive ability as well, scoring against Boston College and Duke in the ACC Tournament. Rounding out the starting group is junior Alisha Woodson, another massive presence in the middle. After an injury hit freshman season, Woodson turned into a lineup fixture last year as a sophomore and hasn’t looked back. The hometown junior is also capable of playing in midfield if need be.
Midfielders – The group that coach Tony da Luz is most likely to fiddle with lineup-wise in matches. This unit had some question marks surrounding it coming into the season but has held up surprisingly well all things considered. Freshman Riley Ridgik has been a constant in the lineup her rookie season and has done well to fill one of the gaps for the Demon Deacons. The midfield is generally a conservative group for Wake, but most of any scoring highlights are likely to come from the rookie who, along with four assists, has game winning goals against NC State and Boston College to her credit. Also likely to feature is junior Ally Berry, who has started just half of Wake’s games this year, but has been a favorite of da Luz in the NCAA Tournament. The junior has done well to recover from an injury that cost her all of last season and repaid her coach’s faith in her as a starter against Penn State with a goal and an assist for the Demon Deacons. Junior Kristen Meier would likely be the favorite to fill the other starting slot for the home side on Friday. Meier missed the Oakland game and came off the bench against Boston U but was back in the starting lineup for the club against Penn St. and has started twenty games this year. Much could depend on the tactical outlook Wake has for this one. If they opt for four in the midfield, the other starting slot could fall to either sophomore Jackie McSally or senior Amanda Howell. Neither are much of a threat going forward, but both have extensive starting experience for Wake this year and in previous campaigns.
Forwards – There’s nothing subtle about Wake Forest’s attacking intent. UCF is likely to face unrelenting doses of sophomore duo Katie Stengel and Rachel Nuzzolese all night long as the Demon Deacons pursue a first trip to the College Cup. Stengel has been smashing school scoring records since coming onto the college scene last year and already looks like a potential USWNT member in the future. With power and pace to spare, Stengel destroyed defenses early on this season before hitting a mid-season slump that also saw her miss games against Duke and North Carolina through injury. But Stengel has found her best form again, having scored in her last four matches, including two goals and an assist against Penn State. Nuzzolese has run a little hot and cold as she makes a return from an ACL injury that cut short her season last year. But the sophomore has been more hit than miss lately with a point in six of her last eight matches, including one in all three of Wake’s NCAA Tournament matches. Nuzzolese also scored against UCF earlier in the season for the match’s only goal. Junior Marisa Park has been the weapon of choice for da Luz when the team has gone to a 4-3-3. But with just one goal on the season in thirteen starts, she’s likely just an ancillary threat to opposing defenses.
Reserves – Considering that two of McSally, Howell, and Park are likely to end up beginning on the bench, you could reasonably say that Wake has one of the deeper reserve units in the Elite Eight. Freshman Jessica Mandarich has been a frequent contributor off the bench in spelling the defenders, while Jordan Feger has been one of the team’s most consistent reserves over the pat three seasons and has four assists from the bench this year. Upperclassmen Chelsea Allen and India Winford could spell some of the starting forwards briefly, while Florida transfer Annick McBryar could also see minutes if da Luz dips into his bench for this one.
UCF – Personnel Breakdown
Goalkeepers – If they didn’t before last Sunday, the college soccer world now knows the name of senior Brazilian goalkeeper Aline Reis. The diminutive netminder may stand at just 5’3″ but made a gigantic impression in the Sweet Sixteen matchup against North Carolina with her strong play in goal and saves in the shootout that brought UCF to this point. Reis combines her great reflexes with fearlessness in the box and in the air to make her a cut above so many of her bigger peers. The veteran is a fiery presence for the Golden Knights, and her leadership has been a big reason that Amanda Cromwell’s side has made their run through the postseason.
Defenders – Much like their opponents on Friday, UCF boasts a defensive unit without a senior starter in their midst. The anchor of the group is sophomore Marissa Diggs, a Texan who has been in irrepressible form for her two seasons in Orlando. Diggs is already on her way to becoming the league’s top defender and will likely be the one entrusted with keeping Katie Stengel at bay in this one. Of a distinctly more offensive bent is German full-back Bianca Joswiak, a modern full-back in the bombs away style going up and down the flanks. Joswiak has four goals and three assists on the season but may ultimately be more concerned with defense given the opposition. Sophomore Ashley Nicol is the other likely guaranteed starter on the rearguard. Nicol won a starting spot on the backline as a rookie last season and hasn’t budged since, starting every match in her UCF career thus far. The other spot in the back four could be up for grabs. Freshman Carleigh Williams has been the starter for UCF there for most of the season but gave way to Brit Sokhara Goodall for the first three matches of the NCAA Tournament, also surprising since Goodall hadn’t started a match for the club all season and had played in just six matches overall before the Big Dance. But despite not playing in the win over Florida, Williams still played seventy-eight minutes from off the bench against North Carolina, perhaps indicating that she could get the nod on Friday.
Midfielders – As you might expect with these Golden Knights, it’s more about graft than craft in the middle of the park. The leader of this bunch is crunching midfielder Stacie Hubbard, a senior leader who’s not afraid of doing the dirty work when necessary. Hubbard’s not just a destroyer though, as she’s got as many game winning goals as she does yellow cards (four) this season and is actually third on the team in shots. The other senior in midfield for Cromwell’s side is Katie Jackson, who hasn’t quite enjoyed the success in front of goal that she had last season when she tallied six goals and seven assists. In fact, Jackson’s only goal this year has been from the penalty spot. Despite that, she’s still a hard worker with plenty of experience in the lineup, an asset this deep into the tournament. The other two likely members of UCF’s starting lineup in midfield have just this season’s starting experience under their belt, but both have been constants in the lineup this season. Junior Andrea Rodrigues is a Portuguese international and led the team in C-USA assists with three on the season, while freshman Madison Barney made quite the impression in Friday’s second round NCAA Tournament match when she scored the opener against sister McKenzie’s Florida team.
Forwards – It’s a junior duo that does most of the damage in attack for the Golden Knights. The main focus will likely be on Tishia Jewell, the 2010 C-USA Offensive Player of the Year and a multi-faceted threat in attack. Jewell had ten goals and twelve assists last season in a breakout campaign, earning her a lot more attention from opposing defenses this year. Thus, her goalscoring has dipped to just seven goals, but Jewell has still been a big factor in the offense with ten assists to her name. Jewell will be the focal point of this offense and probably needs a good game if UCF are to pull off another upset. Strike partner Nicolette Radovcic isn’t the most consistent of options up top but can be a major player when she’s feeling it. She was against Penn State earlier in the season when she scored both goals in that upset, likewise against Florida last Friday when she scored one of the bigger goals in recent program history, the eventual match winner against the Gators. If Wake Forest swarms on Jewell, it might be up to Radovcic to lift the offense upon her shoulders.
Reserves – It’s mostly youngsters off the bench for UCF, with Amanda Cromwell’s reserve unit full of fresh faced freshmen and sophomores. Most likely to make an impact would be Kristina Trujic, a sophomore who has nine starts this season under her belt and four goals to her name. Trujic had a weekend to remember last week, scoring against Florida on Friday before netting UCF’s goal against North Carolina, a peach of an effort from distance. The rest of the Golden Knights’ reserve crew will probably make their presence known with energy and commitment. The group includes Emily Grider, Kayla Darden, Jennifer Martin, and Marleigh Howard. Goodall could also feature prominently from off the bench if Carleigh Williams rejoins the starting lineup.
UCF’s been a team that’s risen to the occasion often this year, usually playing their best soccer versus the toughest opposition they run up against. During the period in non-conference play when Wake Forest looked indomitable, UCF gave them a whale of a game in Orlando, falling by just a single goal. The Golden Knights did a shockingly good job in silencing Katie Stengel on the evening, holding her shotless, the only time a team has managed to do that this year. They didn’t do such a good job on Rachel Nuzzolese though, and the sophomore burned them for the only goal of the match. While you’d expect UCF to make life difficult on Wake’s attacking corps, they’ll still probably need some big saves out of Aline Reis to stand a chance.
Tony da Luz has had to deal with more than one challenge in his tenure as Wake Forest coach. While the looming shadow of North Carolina over the entire region has receded a bit in recent years, Wake’s also had the reputation of being a team that’s never really lived up to their seeding come NCAA Tournament time. The arrival of Stengel, Nuzzolese, and Bledsoe was a game changer though, and the Demon Deacons have been one of the most talked about programs in the country since. With a more favorable draw after last season’s nightmare, da Luz has Wake close to cashing in on their massive potential.
Amanda Cromwell’s turned her UCF team into a spitting image of herself in her playing prime, a combative, hard nosed team that doesn’t back down from any opponent, no matter the size or stature. The Golden Knights have been known though as a bit of a big fish in a small pond, toying with overmatched C-USA rivals in recent years, though they took a back seat to fierce rivals Memphis this season in the regular season. But then again, this is a UCF team that’s done most of its more notable damage out of conference against bigger programs anyway. Cromwell finally was able to get her side over the hump of the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament this season and could be poised to further validate her status as a rising star in the coaching ranks with a trip to Kennesaw and the College Cup with a victory here.
Famous Last Words
Tricky to say the least for the home side who may have gotten as difficult a draw as they would have had North Carolina come through the last round. UCF’s already proven they can play with Wake Forest once this year in addition to stopping their leading scorer dead in her tracks at the beginning of the season. It’ll be interesting to see if UCF can repeat their defensive mastery of Stengel for a second time. If they can, Wake will have to hope that their other sources of offense can help them come up big or hit UCF on set pieces, as the Demon Deacons are among the very best in the country in dead ball situations. While Wake will be deserved favorites with home advantage, the longer UCF is on level terms, or even ahead, the more precarious things could get. UCF may be inexperienced this deep into an NCAA Tournament, but so is Wake Forest to a large extent, having been thumped by North Carolina in their last trip to the Elite Eight. Expect a close and potentially bruising encounter from these two College Cup hopefuls on Friday night.