It was a beautiful moment.
Wake Forest University senior midfielder Ian Harkes launched a long pass to midfielder Ema Twumasi, a freshman from Ghana via Connecticut, setting him up for greatness.
The pass came 80 minutes into their Elite-8 matchup against the Virginia Tech Hokies on Dec. 3.
The whole night at Wake’s Spry Soccer Stadium had been beautiful, but too closely resembled the one a year prior when the No. 1-seeded Demon Deacons men’s soccer team dropped their bid at the College Cup Final Four in an overtime upset against No. 8-seed Stanford University.
Stray clouds crossed the dusky sky. A crisp, electric chill frosted the air. Fog billowed from the mouths of hundreds of Wake fans filling the stands and crowding the Walt Chyzowych Alumni Hill.
Yes, it felt eerily like that fateful, unsettling night last year.
Harkes had been there, on his knees in the middle of the field, crumpled by defeat after he’d tied the game for his team and kept their hopes — and the fans’ hopes — alive, if but for fleeting minutes. He surely did not want to feel that pain again. He and the Deacs steeled themselves against failure.
But Virginia Tech, an upstart No. 8 seed like Stanford the year before, came out aggressive from the get-go.
Anyone could have guessed this game would be a slugfest. Not only was this the Elite 8, but the Hokies are Atlantic Coast Conference rivals with the Deacons.
Virginia Tech successfully kept the ball in Wake Forest territory for the first tense minutes of the game, scrapping hard for shots on goal, but never found the chance to strike.
Wake soon worked out of the tight squeeze and hit back hard.
A shot by defender Kevin Politz in the fourth minute went just high, drawing exasperated sighs from the Deacon faithful. Three minutes later, Twumasi logged his first shot on goal, saved by monstrous 6-foot-5 Hokie goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard. Lundgaard halted another strike in the ninth minute of play by Wake midfielder Jon Bakero, who’d scored two goals in the Sweet 16 game against Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
Regardless of the Tech goalie’s performance, the rabble on the hill lifted a bitter song through the fall chill, playing off the Hokies’ in-state adversary, the University of Virginia: “You’re not UVA/ You’re not UVA/ You’re not even special/ You’re not UVA.”
Virginia Tech, miffed by the insult, fired a quick salvo of three shots on the Wake goal between the 13th and 15th minutes.
Following this outburst, though, Wake seized control of the game.
Over the next 34 minutes — through the rest of the first half and four minutes into the second — Wake Forest dominated offensive time of possession, shooting on the Virginia Tech goal seven times while the hapless Hokies didn’t log another shot until the 55-minute mark.
At the game’s end, the Deacs posted 18 shots on goal to Virginia Tech’s five.
The whole time, that damned Lundgaard held his post like his life depended on it, weathering intense, acidic scrutiny from fans on the hill directly behind him. Those Demon Deacons crowded on the berm would thunder, “Wake!” and the fans in the stands would respond to the call, “Forest!” which crashed over the pitch and echoed through the hardwoods, diffusing finally far off on campus.
Yet the game remained scoreless.
These two conference foes seemed locked in a brutal stalemate, littered with fouls and close calls, blocks and saves. The possibility of overtime loomed heavily ahead with 10 minutes on the clock.
And then, it happened: Ian Harkes made that long pass to Ema Twumasi, who entered the upper corner of the box with pressure from a Tech defender. Twumasi tied up the Hokie, who went rolling into the grass. Two short dribbles and Twumasi lined up against Lundgaard at the left corner of goalie box. The freshman rocketed the ball low, flailing over the sliding Lundgaard as the ball skidded just past the imposing goalkeeper and rolled high into the left corner of the net.
Spry Stadium erupted in a blast of cheers.
As Lundgaard knelt dumbfounded, Twumasi flew behind the goal, smile exploding off his face, saluting the fans and teammate Hayden Partain. With the clock still counting time, Partain and other Deacs leapt atop the brick wall dividing fans from the pitch into the swell of the roaring crowd.
Harkes trotted from midfield, pumping his fists in vindication, then ran, arms wide open, to Twumasi. They caught each other, embraced in the joy of coming victory, the veteran tousling the new hero’s hair.
Two minutes later, Twumasi knocked another shot in after the checkered sphere ricocheted like a pinball twice off Lundgaard, breaking the back of any realistic hope for the Hokies, from a similar angle to the first goal, setting the final score of 2-0, Wake Forest.
But this didn’t goal have the gravity — if anything, the weight lifted — of the previous score.
This decisive first strike redeemed last year’s disappointment. Emotions poured onto the field and merged in osmosis between fan and players. And teammates lifted each other selflessly into glory.
It was a moment in a game exemplifying the best of collegiate sport.
It was a beautiful moment.
Watch the Deacs take on the University of Denver Pioneers in the 2016 NCAA Men’s College Cup in Houston, Texas on ESPNU, Friday at 6 p.m.