The Roman Empire fell, the Titans were usurped and the Bastille was destroyed. All unconquerable things can be conquered, and on the first day of October, Wake Forest joined such indomitable ranks.
Carrying a No. 1 ranking, a program-record 13-match home win streak and a perfect 9-0 start, the Demon Deacons were college soccer’s most formidable foe when Duke arrived Saturday in Winston-Salem, N.C. Just a week prior, they had toppled then-No. 10 Clemson, the defending national champion, by a 6-1 margin, the most goals the Tigers have given up in nearly 30 years. But none of that history mattered when, at the conclusion of 90 grueling minutes, the Blue Devils had finally struck the Goliath between the eyes, winning 3-2.
“We're still learning a little bit about ourselves,” Kerr said. “Our back four was outstanding, our midfield worked diligently together and were able to … create some opportunities for our forwards and it was an overall tremendous performance by our team.”
However, the win was just inches away from becoming Duke’s third tie of the season. Though the Blue Devils (7-0-2, 3-0-1 in the ACC) controlled much of the second half, Wake Forest (9-1, 3-1) made one final push in the waning minutes of the game. With under a minute on the clock, Demon Deacon sophomore Babacar Niang raced up the field and evaded several defenders to launch a long, arcing shot over the head of nearly every player on the field and directly toward the top right corner of the goal.
Time seemed to slow down and all eyes turned to the goal to watch with bated breath as graduate goalkeeper Eliot Hamill leapt up, fingers barely grazing the ball enough to redirect it toward the sky, and then gobbled up the rebound. Wake Forest did not get any more chances after that, and Duke was able to exhale.
“[That was] nerve-wracking,” Kerr said with a laugh. “My heart rate was probably 200 beats a minute. It was a very mature performance by Eliot, because the past two years, he's really found his way to [becoming] a top, top goalkeeper. ... And it's nice to have it all come together in such a big game away from home.”
The Demon Deacons laid it on Hamill, especially in the first half. He finished with seven saves on eight shots on goal, but that doesn’t paint the full picture. The initial frame was all Wake Forest, which held the ball for 57% of the half and looked every bit like the No. 1 team in the country. It took seven shots while the Blue Devils only managed two, and almost the entire half was played around Duke’s box. Hamill, though, stood tall, not just making saves but securing the ball to end the play and give Duke a chance to move the ball down the field.
With a clean slate thanks to Hamill, Duke came out firing in the second half, looking like a completely different team, and 11 minutes into the half, it paid off. Junior midfielder Peter Stroud drew a foul about 10 yards out from the box, and Nick Pariano, also a junior midfielder, lined up for the free kick. The service was perfect. Its trajectory sent the ball just in front of the goal, where sophomore Shakur Mohammed popped up and headed it in.
Barely 90 seconds later, an ill-advised trip from junior defender Amir Daley gave Wake Forest a penalty kick and Niang converted on the point-blank opportunity to tie the game at 1-1. Its other goal was also scored on a set piece after Duke junior midfielder Luke Thomas mistakenly redirected a Wake Forest corner kick past Hamill. However, the Blue Devils eventually got their own corner-kick goal, and in total, each team got eight tries from the corner.
“It's like a boxing match where one boxer had a bunch of punches in a row and the other boxer withstood the barrage of punches, and then we would do the same to them and they withstood us,” Kerr said. “It's not like we just got lucky; we work on these things. And it's pleasing as a coach to see it come to fruition.”
After sophomore forward Jai Bean scored an odd go-ahead goal by blocking a clear attempt from Wake Forest’s goalie, freshman defender Axel Gudbjornsson scored what ended up being the game-winning goal. Junior midfielder Miguel Ramirez took the corner kick and found the head of the 6-foot-4 Icelander to give Duke a two-goal cushion with 15 minutes on the clock.
While Wake Forest got within one soon after, the back line did not concede a single non-set-piece goal all game. Gudbjornsson himself made crucial plays in the box, particularly two blocks early in the game when Hamill was caught out of position. Freshman Kamran Acito also stood strong with his signature squeaky-clean physicality.
“[Gudbjornsson] has been a revelation with his size and ability. ... And I thought Acito was a menace in the second half. ... Both of them did a great job tonight against a formidable Wake Forest attack with guys that can hurt you from all angles,” Kerr said.
Meanwhile, Daley and sophomore Ruben Mesalles, who had been playing midfield, rejoined the back line as Duke sent out a 4-4-2 formation to prepare for Wake Forest’s relentless offense. Mesalles especially stepped up as he filled in for junior defender Antino Lopez, a stalwart veteran who has missed the past two games due to “concussion problems,” according to Kerr. Lopez could return as soon as Duke’s Tuesday game against Howard, but a return Friday against Virginia is more likely.
Still, having already dealt with the long-term loss of junior Lewis McGarvey, suspensions and minor injuries, Mesalles and the rest of the back line seamlessly covering for Lopez is a testament to their versatility and skill. The team as a whole, having knocked off the top dog, has a better understanding of what it is capable of and possesses the confidence to go with it.
“It's something that we cherish, an opportunity to play a high-level opponent in the ACC and away from home and to get a [well-deserved] result like that,” Kerr said. “But at the same time, we have four games to go in the ACC and six games total …Tuesday's coming up quick, and we're back at the training field [Sunday] at 11:30.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.