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Dec 3, 2009

Wake takes aim at fourth straight Final Four

To many, the fact that Wake Forest is one game away from its fourth consecutive College Cup comes as no surprise.

The third-seeded Demon Deacons will host sixth-seeded UCLA on Saturday for the right to advance to the Final Four (there are 16 seeds overall in the 48-team tournament).

Wake Forest is 16-3-3, won another ACC regular-season title, was consistently ranked among the top three all season (never falling below sixth) and seemed to continue the dominance it displayed the last few seasons.

But this season hasn't been like the team's 2008 campaign, when it marched through the regular season undefeated and seemed virtually unbeatable.

"I honestly don't know if we believed it when they put us in the top 10," coach Jay Vidovich said of the team's preseason ranking. "We lost eight [key] players from last year's team. That's difficult to replace. All our guys now -- but Ike [Opara], Corben [Bone] and our keeper [Akira Fitzgerald] -- had not been regular starters."

Of course, that would prove to be a good core. Opara and Bone were named this season's ACC defensive and offensive players of the year, respectively, and Fitzgerald returned to post a .695 goals-against average.

But it has been the ability of the new starters -- especially seniors such as Zack Schilawski, Nick Courtney, Austin da Luz and Justin Lichtfuss, who have stepped up and stepped into their new roles -- that makes Vidovich most proud.

"I don't know what's going to happen on Saturday or how far we're going to go, but all those guys are the reason we were successful last season and the season before that," Vidovich said. "[Some of these players] would have been starting for 99 percent of programs in the country every game since freshman [year]."

Instead, they each made the decision to come to Wake Forest, which meant limited minutes and fewer starts, but also the opportunity to be part of a 2007 national championship team and a perennial contender.

"Looking back, it's no question the best decision I could have possibly made," Schilawski said. "If I would have known we'd be in a position to go to four College Cups, it would have been a no-brainer. But at the time, I wanted to be at Wake and thought it would be the best place for me."

In the world of college soccer, where rosters are always changing, the "same" team never reaches the Final Four twice. Still, when it comes to program success, it's hard to argue that there has been a better place to play than Wake Forest during the last four years.

"We talk about it a lot," Schilawski said of the Demon Deacons' postseason success. "It's hard not to take it for granted because it's the only thing I've ever experienced. The vast majority of players never make it to a College Cup, and it's kind of been the norm for our class. I think it says good things about our program that it's disappointing if we don't make it that far, that we consider that a bad season."

So far, it's been nothing of the sort for Wake Forest. And Schilawski hopes to see the season end on a high note.

"Each of the three previous Final Fours are special for different reasons," he said. "That's the thing that's special about my career. There are so many special moments and defining moments, so many big games, but I can't help but think getting to the Final Four this year would be the most memorable."

But first Wake will have to get through UCLA.

While the Demon Deacons came into the season looking to fill holes from losses, the Bruins (12-3-4) fielded their most senior-laden squad since coach Jorge Salcedo took over in 2003. Those seniors also have had a taste of the College Cup -- UCLA finished as national champion runner-up in 2006 -- and are looking to close out their careers by getting back to the finals.

Akron-Tulsa

If it wasn't for the fact that Akron is undefeated, this game might get lost in a weekend of big-name matchups. At 22-0, the top-seeded Zips have yet to give up a goal this postseason. Eighth-seeded Tulsa has quietly powered through to the Elite Eight after squeaking by with an overtime win against Saint Louis in the Golden Hurricanes' opening game. Tulsa definitely has drawn some attention in the tournament, but Akron is the clear favorite.

Drake-North Carolina

Every year, a mid-major team makes a tournament run, surprising some top teams in the process. Drake earned that distinction this year. The Bulldogs took out Western Illinois in the first round, upset No. 4 seed Ohio State in the second, then bounced the ACC's Boston College to advance to the Elite Eight. Drake will try to pull off another upset, over No. 5 North Carolina, but the Tar Heels know what it takes to succeed in December. After finishing as runner-up in last year's national championship game, North Carolina has been determined to return to the College Cup -- and the Heels surely won't care if Cinderella is standing in their way.

Maryland-Virginia

While Maryland is the reigning national champion, Virginia is favored heading into this game. The NCAA quarterfinal marks the third time these teams will have met since Oct. 31. They played to a scoreless draw in their regular-season conference match, but the No. 2 seed Cavaliers came away with a 1-0 victory when they met again in the ACC tournament on Nov. 11. With Virginia playing host and riding a 13-game unbeaten streak, the Cavs aim to make it two straight wins over the unseeded Terrapins.

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

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