For 86 minutes Friday, Duke’s postseason hopes were on life support. But despite Wake Forest’s attempts to force them to go out quietly, the Blue Devils still have a pulse.
Down two goals with less than four minutes to play, Duke miraculously battled back with goals 44 seconds apart from Will Donovan and Luis Rendon to force a 2-2 tie against the No. 15 Demon Deacons on Senior Night Friday at Koskinen Stadium.
“It shows the spirit in our team,” head coach John Kerr said. “It was senior night and we just weren’t going to give up. And we thought we were hard done in... and we reacted in a real positive way and refused to lose. I love our team spirit.”
For much of the second half, Duke (6-4-6, 1-3-5 in the ACC) faced an uphill battle trying to climb out of a one-goal deficit against defensively-sound Wake Forest (8-3-5, 5-0-4) squad, which came into the contest having surrendered just nine goals in eight ACC matches. Despite a 61st-minute set piece from Duke captain Sean Davis that was inches from nestling in the upper right corner, the Demon Deacons were relatively unthreatened.
In the final seven minutes, the Blue Devils sprang back to life.
In a desperation maneuver by Kerr, Zach “Chachi” Mathers was moved from his position of centerback into an attacking role. Immediately, he pressured the Wake Forest defense, putting himself in a battle for an aerial ball against Sam Fink and goalkeeper Andrew Harris. Mathers leaped and headed the ball into the vacant net, right before being clobbered by Harris.
As the Duke faithful cheered and Mathers writhed in pain, referee Brent Sorg frantically waved his arms to quell the celebration. Mathers was called for the foul.
“The ref said he pushed the guy before he headed it,” Kerr said. “And I didn’t see that.”
Less than two minutes later, the stands were silent as Harkes broke free on the left wing and delivered another inch-perfect cross that Luca Gimenez directed past Duke goalkeeper Alex Long. With 4:26 remaining in the game, the home squad was just about flatlining.
The team immediately bombed forward and earned a corner, and Mathers’ service snuck through to senior right back Will Donovan, who found a gap in the closing defense to slide the ball into the net to cut his team's deficit in half.
Sensing a tight Wake Forest squad, Duke immediately got back to business, with Mathers and Palodichuk working to win the ball in the midfield and feed a streaking Brody Huitema down the right wing. Huitema’s cross skirted across the face of goal to sophomore Luis Rendon, who coolly deposited the ball past Harris.
Both Donovan’s and Rendon’s goals were their first of the season.
“I really can’t remember that much of [the second goal], I just remember a cross and it just came right to my feet," Rendon said. "I didn’t know it was coming, but I just tapped it in. Slow-motion from there—I know it was a huge game for us, and I just went nuts.”
It was no mistake that Mathers—the man who’d been knocked down just minutes prior—was able to get up quickly and have a hand in both goals.
“He’s the heart and soul of our team—he’s the spirit that we look for, and he’s hard as nails,” Kerr said. “He’s unbelievably reliable and he’ll play any position—whether it’s up front, in the midfield, or in the back—he gets the job done.”
In the overtime periods, Wake Forest had the best chance of both teams to score the golden goal. In the final minute of the first overtime, the referee pointed to the spot as Gimenez was tripped up by Long in a pursuit for the ball. Luckily for the Blue Devils, the assistant referee had marked Gimenez offside prior to the foul, which negated the penalty.
“It was a wicked ending to the game and a very difficult overtime period, but I think at the end of the day, it was a fair result,” Kerr said.
In the first half, despite matching the Demon Deacons shot-for-shot, the Blue Devils found themselves a goal down at the break.
This time, Duke’s old friend—the set piece—turned into its foe, as Wake Forest finally popped the Blue Devils’ defensive bubble in the 20th minute off of an Ian Harkes free kick. Harkes brought the service to the far post, Fink centered the ball and striker and leading scorer Sean Okoli polished off the sequence with a volley to give Wake Forest the lead.
Despite being unable to convert on a left-footed strike in the first half and being shut out thus far in the season, Rendon didn’t lack confidence on his late chance, tapping the ball home with steeled nerves.
“I know it’s been coming,” Rendon said. “I’ve been trying to take shots, as many as I can, all season, and I’m just happy I got my first goal and helped out this program.”
Duke—playing its seventh overtime match of the season—maintained its undefeated 1-0-6 record in extra time. The Blue Devils are now 2-0-4 in their past six contests, an unbeaten streak stretching back to Oct. 1, and they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
Still fighting to make the top eight in the ACC and reach the conference tournament, the Blue Devils now sit in ninth place—just a point out of the final spot in the tournament field. Duke will wrap up its conference schedule with road matches against Pittsburgh and Clemson.
“I’m very proud of our team and our spirit and our resilience and our refusal to lose," Kerr said. "The next day is the next day and we keep moving forward.”