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Duke men's soccer edges by Wake Forest in ACC tournament

Junior Cameron Kerr recorded two assists against Wake Forest.
Junior Cameron Kerr recorded two assists against Wake Forest.

Sunday afternoon at home in the ACC quarterfinals, the Blue Devils toppled the Demon Deacons 3-2 in the soccer equivalent of a back-alley fistfight. 

With a whopping 30 fouls, six yellow cards, two red cards and one penalty kick, both teams clawed at each other for any scrap of advantage in the nailbiter. However, by the end of the night, through blood, sweat and tears—maybe that’s a little dramatic—Duke had secured itself its first ACC semifinal appearance since 2018. 

“Well, it's playoff season, right?” head coach John Kerr joked after the game. “Everyone gears it up another notch, and you have to step up and be on your toes, because if you're hesitant, then you're going to pay a price.”

Pay a price the Blue Devils did, at least at first, as a foul in the box led to a penalty kick for Wake Forest. Though goalie Eliot Hamill made the initial save, he couldn’t control the rebound, and the Demon Deacons were able to tap the ball in for a one-goal lead in the 27th minute. 

However, Duke would not be discouraged and immediately made a push for a goal. Passing circles around Wake Forest, the Blue Devils created enough pressure that the Demon Deacons didn’t know what to do with it and fouled freshman midfielder Jai Bean just outside the box directly in front of the net. Sophomore striker Thorleifur Ulfarsson lined up for the freekick, and, despite the line of Demon Deacons in front of him, sent an absolutely beautiful, arcing shot into the top left corner of the net to tie up the score at one. 

Just a minute and five seconds later, off a quick press from the kickoff, Ulfarsson scored again. A member of this week’s TopDrawerSoccer Team of the Week, Ulfarsson became just the fifth Blue Devil to ever score two goals in an ACC tournament game. He also leads the nation in goals per game as the only player with a measure greater than one, and he’s tied for most goals in the ACC. 

Kerr simply said he was, “Excellent, as usual.” 

“He's a force, not only in the goal-scoring category, but he's pressing well, he's getting around the field and he's holding balls up, bringing his other teammates into the play...that's a big plus for us offensively, because he opens up new spaces for other guys,” Kerr said. 

Ulfarsson wasn’t the only one to have a big game, though, as the Blue Devils brought the heat at Koskinen Stadium, giving the refs plenty of work to do in the process. Bean scored the game-winner in the 77th minute, ending a 32-minute scoring drought between both teams and potting his first collegiate goal in the process. 

Meanwhile, junior midfielder Cameron Kerr, Coach Kerr’s son, came off the bench and had the best game of his college career, playing a career-high 47 minutes and assisting on the Blue Devils’ final two goals, his first career points. The assists were also secondary assists, which speaks to the playmaking value he added as he’s stepped into a larger role this season. 

Though he was wearing a mask, you could hear the smile in the older Kerr’s voice as he said, “Very proud as a dad, very proud as a coach. I was really pleased for him. He's been working hard, and finally got some extended minutes where he could really show what he could do...So good day for the Kerrs!”

However, despite an ultimately victorious performance, the Blue Devils know they have a few things to work on before they take on the Clemson team Wednesday that handed them one of their just three losses this season in the semifinals. While the chippiness was emblematic of an emotional playoff game and the pressure both teams were able to bring, against better teams like Clemson and in the NCAA tournament, fouls could get them in trouble, as Wake Forest’s second goal to close out the first half was also catalyzed by a setpiece play. 

Still, after their final goal, all Duke had to do was defend the lead. While Wake Forest got some close calls, including a terrifying freekick with seven seconds left, the feisty Blue Devils were able to hang on for those last 13 minutes until the buzzer sounded. 

In a game seemingly decided by who could survive a slugfest, what ultimately won the game for the Blue Devils was sticking with their gameplan. Scoring on their trademark aggressive press and a setpiece play they practice often, Duke showed that it is ready to fight in the ACC tournament. 

“As a coach, I'm never happy unless you win 10-nothing and don't make any mistakes. I think there's a lot of areas that we can still improve on,” Kerr said. 

Still, he pointed to the team’s resiliency in a tough match as the game’s greatest strength and added, “I'm just happy for the guys. It's been a while since we've been in the semifinals, and hopefully we can continue the run.”

Sasha Richie

Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and the Blue Zone Editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.


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