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Dec 15, 2007

Wake Forest faces vaunted Ohio State defense

CARY, N.C. -- On the face of it, the table seems set for Wake Forest to capture its first College Cup crown against Ohio State on Sunday afternoon (3 ET, ESPN2).

After all, Wake has been ranked first or second in the polls all season and dispatched semifinal foe and emerging ACC force Virginia Tech 2-0 to reach the finale. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes managed only one goal as they squeaked by Miraculous Massachusetts in their own semifinal Friday.

But the truth is that both results were misleading. The two-goal win over Tech flattered the less-than-convincing Demon Deacons, who were able to capitalize on two key VT mistakes. And, in OSU, Wake will be facing a team that hasn't lost in 15 contests and boasts a defense that has allowed only 18 goals in 25 games this season.

"They are a very balanced team, and they don't give up goals," Wake coach Jay Vidovich said. "[Friday] was another 1-0 game for them."

Despite their reputation for employing lockdown tactics, the Buckeyes actually can play a bit, too. Friday's scoreline might not suggest it, but anyone who watched the game witnessed OSU's crisp, intelligent passing display. They were able to conjure eight first-half shots against the Minutemen but allowed only one. (By contrast, the Deacs produced just five total shots against VT.) Fact is, only the brilliance of UMass keeper Zack Simmons prevented an Ohio State rout.

Vidovich said his team must pay particular attention to Buckeyes striker Xavier Balc and midfielder Roger Espinoza, who was especially impressive Friday. But the Deacs should be prepared for a fast-paced, physical encounter all over the field.

Said UMass coach Sam Koch of Ohio State after the Buckeyes ended his team's improbable run: "I will admit, I didn't think they were going to be quite as big and strong and fast as they were."

Still, beating the equally hard-running Minutemen took a lot out of the Buckeyes, who will enter the final "a little banged up," according to coach John Bluem. And, of course, Wake Forest remains the favorite.

"They've only had two losses all season, so obviously they're very strong," Bluem said. "I watched their game [Friday]. They're a very, very talented team that can come at you in a number of ways. It's going to be a very difficult game for us."

Bluem noted that although the Deacs have many offensive weapons, forward Marcus Tracy -- who scored both Wake goals against Virginia Tech -- poses perhaps the biggest threat.

"He's great in the air, and their team is very good on restarts. Tracy is definitely a guy we will try to concentrate on," he said.

"The fact that it's one game is good for us," Bluem continued. "It's not like we have to take two out of three from them. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our players now."

Notes:

• Wake Forest assistant coach Jon Lowery held a similar role for the Buckeyes in 2005 and 2006. Lowery was an All-Big Ten goalkeeper at Ohio State in 1997 and 1998 under Bluem; he also was an assistant at UMass in 2003 and 2004.

• Ohio State freshman midfielder Konrad Warzycha is the son of former MLS and Polish national team standout Robert Warzycha, who is an assistant coach with the Columbus Crew.

• Wake sophomore Zack Schilawski has a chance to hoist the hardware in his hometown. Schilawski, who set up Tracy's second goal Friday, is a Cary native and played at Cary High.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.