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Demon Deacons shooting for repeat championship

Winston-Salem mayor Allen Joines officially declared Feb. 7, 2008, Wake Forest Men's Soccer Team Day -- just one more honor of many heaped upon last fall's national champions.

But while the Demon Deacons take pride in the recognition, the focus has already shifted away from what the team accomplished in 2007 and on to what they have to look forward to this year. "We're kind of being constantly reminded of it through other people and the community," junior midfielder Sam Cronin said of the NCAA title. "But within the team, we've kind of forgotten it already. Everybody is back to working hard, morning workouts and everything.

"We use it as a reminder to keep us humble if that makes sense. I think we all realize our success was based solely on the work we did in the spring. Anything less than giving it our 'A' effort every single day makes us realize we won't be able to accomplish the same things we did last season."

As Coach Jay Vidovich put it, "it's been business as usual" for his team since returning from winter break.

"Sometimes [winning the national championship] is a once in a lifetime experience, but we'd like to see if we can put ourselves in a position to be one of those teams that challenges to get into the College Cup again," Vidovich said.

It is, however, a little different heading into the spring this team around. In 2006, Wake Forest fell to UC Santa Barbara in penalty kicks in the national semifinal. The year before, the team gave up a goal in the final minute of regulation to allow Cal to tie the game and the Demon Deacons lost in overtime.

"There's always been this sense of failure that we wanted to right," Vidovich said. "I think this year, the thing is that we feel such an accomplishment, but we think we can do it better."

A pair of losses to Boston College -- that cost Wake Forest the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles -- stand out in particular, but there are also the more subtle nuances of the game that teams are always trying to perfect.

"We just know we can play better," Vidovich said. "We don't feel that we played our best in the finals or in the Cup run. We just think we can get better by next year, and I think that's a pretty big motivating force because when you're good, it's not easy to get much better."

In a way, the team knows that it will have to be better next season if it hopes to achieve a similar level of success. While players may not have memories of a crushing defeat to drive them through the offseason, they are finding success provides a push of its own.

"Going into next fall, we know that we're going to have a target on our back and we know that teams are going to be coming after us, and that's another motivating factor," junior forward Marcus Tracy said. "We're going to have to go out and give it our best, because teams are going to be coming at us 100 percent, and if we don't deliver on a particular day, someone could take a piece of us."

But Vidovich feels his team is up to the challenge. After all, he points out, they already went through that this past fall -- when the team was ranked at or near the top of the nation pretty much all season long.

"I don't see it as there being anything wrong with having a target on their back," he said. "[Our rankings this year] meant that we were taking a lot of people's best shots, and we just felt it made us stronger for it. It wasn't just a one-time deal at the end of the season where we got someone's best efforts."

Just because the team has put its national championship season behind it, that doesn't mean players don't recognize what it means to have been crowned the NCAA's best.

"It's the ultimate prize in that respect," Cronin said. "You kind of realize in terms of tournament play and championships, you've reached all you can reach. I think that's very satisfying."

But for Cronin, Tracy and all the other returning Demon Deacons, there will be plenty of time to enjoy a national championship at some later point.

"I'm sure when I leave and look back at it, it will be something I value highly," Tracy said. "It's the goal of a lot of players coming into college soccer, especially at the Division I level. …To have actually done that is pretty amazing, but at the same time, there's a whole other year, and I think we can accomplish a lot in a year."

They certainly proved that in 2007, and there's no reason to doubt they have what it takes to do so again in 2008.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.