A lot of younger players gained valuable experience during the spring 2021 season which should pay dividends in 2021.
Departures and Gaps
Forward Calvin Harris (4g, 2a), an All-ACC First Team selection, forward Machop Chol (3g, 2a), an All-ACC Second Team, All-American midfielder and three-year starter Isaiah Parente (1g, 4a), goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg, a two-year starter, and defender Michael DeShields, a three-year starter and team leader who didn’t play in the fall due to injury, all entered the professional ranks at the conclusion of the fall 2021 season. Forward Justin McMaster who appeared in 58 career games for the Demon Deacons but saw action in only two games during the spring season due to injury also entered the professional ranks.
Opportunity for Improvement
Wake Forest held opponents to a total of 17 goals last year with a goals against average of 0.94. The experience the freshmen defenders gained last year and that redshirt sophomore netminder Cole McNally gained during the spring season provides the opportunity for continued growth, maturity and consistency on the defensive side of the ball.
Senior Kyle Holcomb (9g, 2a), a 2020 All-ACC Third Team selection with 21 career goals to date returns to power the attack up-top. Junior midfielder Omar Hernandez (6g, 2a) and junior forward David Wrona (3g, 1a) are among other returning players who should add punch to the offense. Both Holcomb and Hernandez have big play ability. Others will need to step forward to provide balance to the offense. Redshirt junior Jake Swallen (1g, 4a) and junior Takuma Suzuki (0g, 2a) add stability and will counted upon to set the pace in the midfield. Sophomores Ryan Fessler (1g, 1a), Colin Thomas (0g, 1a), Chase Oliver and Oscar Sears are among a solid contingent of returning linkmen who look to be in the mix for a greater role in 2021.
Redshirt sophomore Cole McNally who took over as the starting netminder in the spring due to the departure of Andrew Pannenberg will enter the 2021 season with the advantage of having appeared in ten contests with nine starts under his belt. Sophomore Trace Alphin also returns between the pipes.
Senior Holland Rula (0g, 3a) and junior Nico Benalcazar (1g, 0a), a 2020 All-ACC Second Team selection, return to anchor the backline. Benalcazar and midfielder Jake Swallen were the only two Demon Deacons who started every contest during the 2020-2021 season.
Sophomores Garrison Tubbs, an All ACC Freshman Team selection, Prince Amponsah (0g, 1a), Cristian Escribano (0g, 2a), Hosel Kijima (2g, 2a) and Jahlane Forbes (1g, 3a) are among a talented and deep group of returning defenders who should hit the ground running in 2021. Junior Sebastian Scrivner is among other returning defenders who will seek to earn additional minutes.
Let’s begin with a little background information. The ACC was one of only a few conferences that played during the fall of 2020. Wake Forest, like everyone else, had to navigate through the challenges of the pandemic during unprecedented fall 2020 and spring 2021 seasons. However, in addition, they were among the programs that had to deal with a significant number of departures due to players entering the professional ranks at the conclusion of the fall 2020 season.
The early departure of players to take their game to the professional level is not an uncommon occurrence at Wake Forest. However since the 2020 season was split last year with the spring season getting underway in February 2021 and the NCAA Tournament beginning at the end of April 2021, the players who entered the professional ranks departed prior to the start of the spring season.
The cupboard is never bare at Wake Forest. This is a program that reloads annually rather than rebuilds. Regardless, Wake Forest had a significantly different look in the spring of 2021 than in the fall of 2020. Due to the departures, a lot of young players who might not otherwise have received the minutes they did played a lot.
Accordingly, the Demon Deacons faced a learning curve in the spring as the younger players stepped in to fill the gaps that existed. Wake Forest looked like a team in the fall of 2020 that had a real good shot of advancing to the College Cup. In the spring they fielded a team that was highly competitive but for which a berth in the College Cup looked to be a stretch goal. Nonetheless, the Demon Deacons still managed to play their way into the Elite Eight doing a good job along the way of finding a way to close out and win contests. On several occasions a young Wake Forest team showed a lot of grit by coming from behind to win.
With everyone back heading into the 2021 season supplemented by a highly regarded 2021 recruiting class, Wake Forest should again be in the hunt for the ACC title and a high national ranking. The experience gained last year should enhance the consistency of play of the Demon Deacons. Forward Kyle Holcomb and midfielder Omar Hernandez look to be the keys on the offensive side of the ball but others will have to add balance to the attack. The midfield looks deep, the backline anchored by Nico Benalcazar and Holland Rula should be solid, and Cole McNally provides an experienced and composed presence in goal.
The level of improvement of the sophomores, the ability of the newcomers to make a contribution, and the avoidance of the injuries that have hampered Wake Forest over the past two seasons look to be factors that will have a big impact on the the ceiling of this group in 2021.
Wake Forest established during the spring that they are capable of digging deep and winning. This is a team with a ton of potential. The unanswered question in 2021 is whether or not this group can take their game to the next level and consistently do the things well on both sides of the ball that have been the trademark of the best teams at Wake Forest. If they are able to do that and everything falls into place then Spry Stadium in Winston-Salem will be rocking once again in 2021.
Mwinso Denkabe – Forward – Los Altos, California – Los Altos High School – Played with Silicon Valley Soccer Association. Played with the San Jose Earthquakes.
Babacar Niang – Forward – Dakar, Senegal – Pennington, New Jersey – Pennington School – Area Player of the Year at Pennington. Two-time First Team All-State selection. Mercer County Prep Player of the Year. National High School All-American Game.
Bo Cummins – Defender – Port Huron, Michigan – Michigan International Prep School – Played for the Nationals Soccer Club. First Team All-Conference. First Team All-District. Joined New York Red Bull II in the USL Championship League.
Roald Mitchell – Midfielder – Montclair, New Jersey – Montclair High School – Played with the New York Red Bulls II of the USL.
Leo Guarino – Midfielder – East Rockaway, New York – East Rockaway High School – Played for New York City FC U-17. Team captain. Played for New York Cosmos Soccer Club.
Nicolas Mancilla – Midfielder – Osorno, Chile – Colegio Futuro – Played for Universidad de Chile Academy for multiple years.
Jullian Kennedy – Forward – Orlando, Florida – Played for Orlando City Academy. Played with Orlando City B of the USSL.
Tareq Shihab – Midfielder – Brighton, England – Blatchington High School – Played with England’s U-15, U-16 and U-17 teams. Brighton and Hove Albion’s Academy.
Jake Nicoll – Goalkeeper – Short Hills, New Jersey – The Pingry School – Played for Frejus Saint Raphael FC U-23 in France during the 2019-2020 season. Trained with Philadelphia Union II in January 2021.
Picture from Wake Forest Athletics