CARY, N.C. -- If you watched the national championship game and you didn't know better, you might have guessed that Ohio State, and not Wake Forest, was the team that had topped the polls for most of the season.
And then one mistake changed everything.
The Buckeyes had been forced late in the first half to replace injured starting left back Tim Gabel with freshman reserve Jordan Lomnicki. It was a tough spot for the youngster to be thrust into, and it didn't take long for Wake's leading scorer Cody Arnoux to capitalize on the rookie's inexperience.
Arnoux picked Lomnicki clean near the midfield stripe and took off down the right sideline. He then delivered a pinpoint low cross that striker Marcus Tracy, who had been held in check masterfully to that point, blasted home to knot the score at 1-1.
"For sure, there was a bit of a panic," said Wake coach Jay Vidovich of being down early. "We weren't ready to give up a goal when we did. We made a mistake, gave up a goal, and then we were chasing the game."
Twelve minutes after pulling level, Tracy set up Cary, N.C., native Zack Schilawski for the winner on a somewhat controversial play. Tracy had busted through a pair of OSU defenders, but Buckeyes keeper Casey Latchem contended that Wake's striker had handled the ball to gain an advantage before setting up Schilawski. Latchem immediately (and loudly) protested to the referee's assistant on the near touchline, but the goal stood.
"In watching the television replay following that goal, I thought it was pretty clear that it was a handball by their forward," Ohio State coach John Bluem said at the postgame press conference.
Said Tracy: "I've played in a lot of games, and controversial calls have gone both ways. I don't think it was a handball, personally, and he didn't call it, so that's the way it goes."
There can be no argument, however, that the match was a fantastic advertisement for NCAA soccer. Unlike too many recent College Cup finals, both participants displayed equal amounts of skill, guile, desire and toughness. All three goals were well-taken, and an attractive, endlessly entertaining battle of styles was on display: Wake's slick, ball-possession game versus Ohio State's more direct, defend-and-counter method.
The passion threatened to boil over at times, especially in the second half, when several shoving matches ensued after hard fouls. Wake captain Julian Valentin was even forced to leave the game late after Espinosa's reckless, albeit unintentional, high boot turned the defender's face into a bloody, cleat-marked mess.
But for all intents and purposes, the game was already decided at that point. Once the Deacs pulled ahead, the Buckeyes never seriously looked like they would recover. "I think that we ran out of gas a little bit," Bluem said.
For Schilawski, the triumph was especially sweet. Not only did he net the winner to give his school its first national soccer title, he got to do it in his hometown.
"It's unbelievable," Schilawski said. "Growing up here and seeing a lot of great games on that field -- it's surreal to even be a part of a game like that, much less win a national championship. It's perfect."
Making it sweeter still was the fact that Wake had lost in the Cup semis a year ago. "To come so close [last year] was tough for everyone," Schilawski said. "Now it just makes it that much sweeter."
On the flip side, the defeat was agonizingly painful for the Buckeyes, especially after such a positive start.
"I felt like we should have won it," said senior defender Eric Brunner. "We proved we were one of the top two teams in the nation this year. We knocked off the defending national champs [UC Santa Barbara, in the round of 16], and we were unfortunate here."
Bluem agreed: "We thought if we got a lead against these guys that we would be good enough defensively to win the game. I truly believed we could shut them out. We just made two bad mistakes.
"There is no reason at all for our players to hang their heads because they played a super game," he added. "It just didn't go our way. I think you had two excellent teams playing today. Somebody's gotta win."
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.