KENNESSAW, Ga. – The Atlantic Coast Conference omnipresence among the nation’s elite programs has never been so powerfully illustrated than during this year’s NCAA tournament. The ACC placed a NCAA-record nine teams in the championship field. Five squads advanced to the quarterfinals, and three made it all the way to northern Atlanta — Florida State, Duke and Wake Forest — to compete at this year’s Women’s College Cup.
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup Friday night will be an ACC family affair between No. 3 Duke (21-3-1) and No. 6 Wake Forest (18-3-4). Game time is 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com and is a sellout. Duke won the regular season meeting 2-0, but fell to the Demon Deacons 2-1 in the conference semifinals. Now the rubber match is another semifinal with a whole lot more on the line.
“It makes out preparation a little bit easier,” Wake Forest’s head coach Tony da Luz said. “We’ve cut the video, that’s all done. We’ve done it twice now. Just the familiarity, I think.
“All of our players know their players. They know us. It maybe takes the edge off in that we’ve already faced each other on a big stage like this in the semifinals (of the ACC tournament). It may take a little bit of the edge off knowing your opponents pretty well. It’s the third game so we’ve got to break the tie.”
That’s something that has been on Duke’s mind since the ACC semifinals loss. Given the tight nature of this series over the year, the Blue Devils’ 2-0 win at Winston-Salem was the soccer equivalent to USC’s 50-0 thrashing of UCLA last weekend. So when Duke lost the second match it as tough to take mentally as it was physically.
“It was a bummer,” said Tara Campbell, Duke’s goaltender. “I think subconsciously it did impact us after the first game. We just played them so well. Then the second game we were not as on top and they caught us by surprise a little bit.
“So I think the key to this game will be which team comes out hard first. Our defense has played great. I haven’t had a lot of shots in the NCAAs. I get all the glory for the shutouts, but they are the ones that help me out.”
And they have done so to the tune of a school-record 16 shutouts this season. Among then was that regular season meeting with Wake Forest, but an asterisk could easily have been put beside it since Katie Stengel, the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year was out with a knee injury. Stengel, though, would prefer to look forward than at the season’s results.
“Both of those games are in the past,” Stengel said. “A month or so ago, so it doesn’t reflect how we’re going to do tomorrow. They’re good games to reflect on because we did play well. One we got the result we wanted; one we didn’t. We’ll go out tomorrow, play our best and hope it pays off.”
It has for the balance of the season for both teams and that is due largely from playing in the ACC, arguably the best women’s soccer conference in the nation. Each match is against the nation’s best players and that counts for something this time of year.
“That’s one of the reasons why I have so much gray hair,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “It’s a tough, tough league to play in. But once you get out of this league, you’ve seen everything.
“We’ve made some deep runs in the ACC tournament because of what this league has done for us during the regular season. It’s a great league. Players love playing in it because you are playing against some of the best players in the country. Coaches love coaching in it because there are some of the best coaches in the country.”
da Luz agrees as the results back up their claim.
“I think we really proved ourselves this year,” da Luz said. You know there are doubters out there, but the numbers don’t lie. Over the year I think we’re at 80 percent winning percentage ACC vs. non-conference opponents.
“For us and for the players, I think that is a big part why they come to Wake. That’s why they come to the ACC. They want to have that challenge. And if you want to improve as a player, you want to put yourself in the best environment. I think the ACC provides that. Having three teams in the semifinals, I don’t know how anyone can argue that our conference isn’t the best.”