Ninth-ranked Wake Forest might not have its vaunted depth it displayed earlier this season, but its heart and determination is at 100 percent.
That much was evident Sunday night in a 3-1 win over 17th-ranked Michigan in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at Spry Stadium.
Coach Bobby Muuss and his staff had to reach deep into its talented roster this postseason because of key injuries to starters, but the Deacons are still dancing and thriving on the biggest stage. They are one of eight programs left in the tournament with a game on Saturday in the quarterfinals against UC Santa Barbara at Spry Stadium at 5 p.m.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Muuss said about what has to be one of his most satisfying wins in his five seasons. “I think they competed the same way they did in training. I think we talked about it last week, and Steve (Armas) talked about it. It’s no mystery why Kyle Holcomb had the game he had because of how hard he works for the team.”
Holcomb had two goals in the second half and was all over the front line of the Wolverines the entire 90 minutes.
Injuries to Justin McMaster and Aristotle Zarris late in the season have been the most recent subtractions to the Deacons, who earlier this season were ranked No. 1. Missing Sunday’s game was starting midfielder Joey DeZart, a senior leader who was sick and unable to play.
All of that didn’t matter, however.
“We don’t have as many pieces as we did have, but we have the right pieces,” Muuss said about the Deacons and their collective attitude. “If we get the right pieces in the right places this team can be dangerous, and I think we showed that tonight.”
Holcomb scored in the 50th minute when Machop Chol rifled a crossing pass right to Holcomb, who headed it in for a 1-0 lead.
A few minutes later, the Deacons dodged a huge bullet when sophomore Derick Broche of the Wolverines had a breakaway on goalie Andrew Pannenberg. However, his left-footed shot was wide right and just missed.
It was one of the Wolverines’ best scoring opportunities of the night.
“I even looked at their bench and they were deflated, and it gave us energy,” Muuss said about the near miss. “We definitely dodged a bullet … It was a cluster of mistakes and I thought he beat Andrew and it went into the net but you create your own luck with the hard work these guys put in.”
Two minutes later, Bruno Lapa was taken down in the penalty box and awarded a penalty kick. He scored for a 2-0 lead in the 70th minute.
The Wolverines, however, finally broke through in the 77th minute when Broche scored off a rebound.
Muuss wasn’t surprised at what happened next. His Deacons got back to their attacking ways. Holcomb scored again with assists being awarded to Justyn Thomas and Tater Rennhack, both reserves who made the most of their opportunity.
Kyle McCurley, a midfielder who started for DeZart, had only played 125 minutes the entire season but was effective in place of DeZart as he logged 83 minutes.
Holcomb disputed the notion that the Deacons don’t have depth because of injuries.
“I think we are holding all of this together just fine,” Holcomb said. “I think when guys get hurt, others step up and contribute. David Wrona came in and made a great impact and he stepped up, so I think we still have depth.”
The Deacons will have a chance to get to their first College Cup since 2016 if they can win one more game.
“The mentality is we have to have good training again this week,” Chol said. “That training reflects on the field, and the team is so collective right now and we’ve got our rhythm. We just have to continue that and work hard, and if we do that, nobody can stop us.”
Chol didn’t have to play as many minutes during the regular season when they were at full strength, but he’s logging more minutes this postseason. He says seeing his teammates such as Zarris, who is on crutches, and McMaster, who had surgery last week, not being out there serves as motivation.
“I’ll be ready to roll,” Chol said. “Especially for my boys who aren’t playing who are out. We play for them.”
Notes: The Deacons and Wolverines were playing for the first time in men’s soccer. ... Attendance for Sunday’s game was 1,206. ... The College Cup, which is the Final Four of men’s soccer, will be held at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary with the semifinals on Dec. 13 and the championship match scheduled for Dec. 15. Wake Forest’s lone national championship in 2007 was won at WakeMed Soccer Park that season. ... Coach Bobby Muuss is 11-4 in NCAA Tournament games in his five seasons at Wake Forest. ... The Deacons managed just 10 shots in Sunday’s game but scored three times.