It's hard to imagine anyone but Wake Forest hoisting the national championship trophy come Sunday.
Wake Forest has outscored opponents 81-16 to set itself apart as the nation's best scoring offense (3.52 goals per game). Add in its 14 shutouts, including two resounding wins in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds of the NCAA tournament, and there aren't too many weak spots in the Deacs' lineup. The team has three Hermann Trophy semifinalists in Marcus Tracy, Sam Cronin and Cody Arnoux. Sophomore Corben Bone leads the nation in assists per game (.74).
Although it comes as a surprise to virtually no one that the Demon Deacons have reached their third College Cup in as many years, the accomplishment came with challenges this time around. It's easy to stay motivated when you have something to prove. It's harder to stay on top when everything is yours to lose.
"A big difference is in the last several years we always had a tremendous distaste in our mouth for our last loss," Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich had said in the spring. "I think [in 2008] the thing is that although we feel such a sense of accomplishment, we think we can do it better."
So far, they have. The team completed an undefeated regular season. With two games left, his team is in a position to better last year's 22-win single-season record. After missing out on both the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles in 2007, the team captured the regular-season crown by going 7-0-1 in conference play.
|2008 College Cup|
North Carolina vs. Wake Forest Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Maryland vs. St. John's
Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
8 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Sure, it hasn't been a perfect season -- Duke ended those hopes on Oct. 18 after the teams played to a scoreless tie. There also was the 3-2 loss to Virginia on Nov. 18 that halted the Deacs' quest for the conference tournament title. That loss didn't derail Wake Forest, but for a moment it made us remember that the team from Winston-Salem could be beaten. Soccer fans were reminded of the team's fallibility as the Demon Deacons needed overtime to put away William & Mary in the first round of the NCAA tourney.
Two games later, any possible doubts have been erased. Wake Forest has not just advanced but also has crushed opponents in the process with a 7-0 win over Dartmouth on Nov. 30 and a 5-0 victory over eighth-seeded South Florida on Saturday.
The Deacs open the College Cup on Friday against ACC foe North Carolina, a team they beat 4-2 on Nov. 1. Assuming Wake Forest advances, it would face either Maryland or St. John's in the title game.
But at this point in the season, assumptions are dangerous.
"The NCAA tournament is a crazy deal," Vidovich said coming off last season. "It's a tournament of champions, and to outright win it, you've got to be good, but you've also got to be lucky. Things have to go your way.
"When you look at sports in general, especially with single elimination, you realize how fortunate it is to make it to the championship and to win. They really enjoyed it [in 2007], and I think they're willing to pay the price to try to give themselves the opportunity to try to do it again."
That's exactly the position his team has gotten itself in and the opportunity it has earned. No matter what happens this weekend, Wake Forest has had an incredible reign.
ACC tournament redux?
Sure, Wake Forest got booted by Virginia in the ACC tournament, but the likelihood is the Demon Deacons will get a de facto second chance over the weekend. If they're able to get past UNC in the opening round, it could set up a meeting with ACC tournament champion Maryland in the final. The Deacs won the regular-season meeting 4-2.
|This season, ESPNsoccernet brings you scores from every men's and women's NCAA Division I game.
For all the talk of improved parity in college soccer, the NCAA tournament is proving that, when all is said and done, the big conferences still dominate. Chief among those: the ACC. Three of the last four teams standing -- Wake Forest, North Carolina and Maryland -- hail from the East Coast powerhouse. Big East champion St. John's rounds out the quartet.
Don't forget about ...
Although it's likely that few people besides Vidovich and his players view North Carolina as a threat to the defending national champions, the Tar Heels can't be overlooked. Despite finishing with the second-worst conference record, UNC received the No. 13 seed heading into the NCAA tournament -- which is as much a reflection of the ACC's strength as UNC's.
In a tournament that has been relatively surprise-free, the Tar Heels will look to shock everyone. However, North Carolina has yet to play a higher-seeded team in the tournament because No. 4 Michigan State was knocked out by Illinois-Chicago, and No. 5 Akron was bested by Northwestern.
With so much focus on the ACC and the potential for a Wake Forest-Maryland final, it's easy for St. John's to get lost in the mix -- well, as much as a team can when it's headed to the College Cup. The Red Storm couldn't have come into the Final Four with much more momentum.
Defense has been the team's strength all season as the Red Storm -- led by goalkeeper Neal Kitson -- have been at or near the top of the national leaders in all defensive statistics. But against Indiana, St. John's proved it also has the offensive capabilities to contend for a national title.
Down 2-0 with less than 10 minutes to play, the Red Storm rallied, scoring in the 81st and 88th minutes to force overtime. St. John's junior midfielder Nelson Becerra scored the winning goal on a penalty kick in the 94th minute to send his team to the College Cup.
After 3½ months, it all comes down to the weekend's games.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.