One giant down, another one waiting in the wings.
The unseeded University of Akron men’s soccer team knocked out top-seeded Wake Forest 1-0 Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at Spry Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Up next is an Elite Eight date at 9 p.m. Friday at ninth-seeded Stanford (12-3-5), which is trying to win its fourth consecutive national championship after getting past eighth-seeded St. Mary’s 4-2 on penalty kicks.
“What it’s going to take to beat Stanford is not only playing well, but you’re going to have to be a tough team, especially physically,” Zips coach Jared Embick said. “Any time we can do this, we grow stronger, play more together and believe more. We’re going to need that next week. It’s a great opportunity ahead of us.”
While the task might seem daunting, UA just knocked off Wake Forest (18-3), which is the winningest program in the past four seasons.
Now, it’s on to Stanford, which is the second-winningest program during that stretch. Stanford is no stranger to UA, knocking it out of the semifinals 2-0 last season and in penalty kicks in 2015 in the same round.
“We have a lot of confidence,” said UA forward Marcel Zajac, who registered the game-winner against the Demon Deacons. “Wake Forest is obviously a great team and No. 1 overall seed. They had a great season. We knew it was going to be a tough game and it obviously was.”
The win over Wake Forest was a show of mettle as the Deacons held a 5-2 edge in shots on goal.
But UA, which has scored 25 of its 41 goals after halftime, took the only shot that mattered 51 seconds into the second half on the feet of some familiar heroes in this postseason run.
David Egbo took the ball up the right side of the box and forced Andreu Cases Mundet to slide to his left, Egbo crossed it over to a sliding Zajac, who left-footed it into an empty net to give the Zips the lead.
Zajac’s goal, which was his third game-winner of the postseason, not only deflated Spry’s Army, it put shots at a premium the rest of the way.
“Obviously, the goal was great because we got a bit of a safety net,” Zajac said. “We knew if we stuck with what we did in training and defending deep passes, we’d win and that’s what happened.”
The victory didn’t just come from the foot of Zajac.
Goalkeeper Ben Lundt played arguably the best game of his career. Lundt, a senior, came up time and again with one big save after another.
The best attempt after the break came when Justin McMaster charged hard from the right side and blasted a shot from 10 yards out that Lundt swallowed up.
Lundt (five saves) came up huge twice before the break, batting a shot from Machop Chol 15 minutes in and then one-upping himself with a point-blank swat on a shot by Isaiah Parente.
“Everyone on this team knew that Wake Forest was a fantastic team with a great offense,” Lundt said. “I knew going into this game, I would have to make some saves. Luckily, it worked really well today and I was able to help the team and give the team what it deserved.”
When he wasn’t getting it done, the defense in front of him was sharp. McMaster looked like he was going to tie things up with 9:11 remaining, but Carlo Ritaccio slid in from the left to thwart the attack.
“We know we need strong defense with the way we play individually,” Embick said. “I think you saw that with all of them today being Carlo, Marco [Milanese], Pol [Hernandez] and Abdi [Mohamed]. Their focus was tremendous.”