by Anthony Harrison
You can’t really explain them. Sometimes the underdog shows up in force. Other times the favorite underwhelms their competition.
You can point at plays and athleticism on the winning team, but in my opinion, upsets spring from what sports people call “intangibles”: Character, leadership and team charisma. That kind of unquantifiable stuff.
And sometimes, it comes down to luck or bad officiating.
The NCAA seeded Wake Forest University’s men’s soccer team as No. 1 in the national championship. And the program deserved it. They’d taken the title in 2007, a fact proudly displayed on a banner under the scoreboard at W. Dennie Spry Stadium. During the 2015 regular season, the team racked up win after win, tallying only three ties and suffering just one loss: a 1-0 fluke against Elon University.
What can you say? Upsets happen.
They also seemed poised to take the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, but lost to Notre Dame in another 1-0 decision.
But hey — upsets happen.
No matter what, NCAA brass granted them the top spot in the bracket.
And the Deacs, unhampered by road-weariness thanks to playing at home in Winston-Salem, advanced through the Round of 32 and the Sweet 16 to reach their first Elite 8 since 2009.
On Dec. 5, the Demon Deacons faced the No. 8-seeded Stanford University Cardinal at Spry Stadium, their home turf.
A wintry nip in the air. Fogged breath. Heavy coats and toboggans. Aluminum stands chilling occupants’ rears. It certainly felt like football season.
And this was the real football — you know, the one where you actually use your feet to advance the ball.
What we Americans and our northern neighbors call “soccer” will never attain the popularity here of what we call football, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t popular.
Attendance at this Elite 8 game nodded to soccer’s rising following.
Deacon fans packed the stands. They even crowded the hill seating section.
Call it school pride, call it bandwagon fandom, call it whatever you like, but thousands showed up against the chill to cheer on their Deacs. While this late autumn has been relatively balmy, it was not mild that evening.
The fans’ enthusiasm for the imminent game rivaled that of any gridiron match.
Wild applause and adulation for the boys in white, black and gold as they trotted out onto the pitch. Equal boos and disdain for their opponents in black and cardinal-red stripes.
“Your mascot is a stupid tree!” a fan shouted at the passing Stanford players from the safety of Walt Chyzowych Alumni Hill. Anyone who heard that sick burn laughed.
This kind of heckling proved not to be an isolated incident. Some Demon Deacons even got a bit personal.
The chant, “Andrew sucks!” erupted shortly before the end of the first half, but subsided as quickly as it arose.
The Andrew in question was the Cardinal’s goalkeeper Andrew Epstein, who had previously played for the US U-14 and U-15 national teams.
By that point, Stanford had the lead. And they’d had it for a while.
As a few Deacon faithful tried to get a feeble wave started, Cardinal forward Brandon Morris nailed a header past Wake Forest goalie Alec Ferrell.
A boo ripples better than a wave.
The crowd also reserved some ire for the officials.
Now, a short admission: Sometimes, I honestly can’t tell what’s a penalty and what’s not. So many people tripped and limbs went flying and players flopped all over the place so many times that I had no damn idea what was happening.
But there were some arguable no-calls working against the home team.
“Are you kidding me?!”
“He tripped him!”
“This is the wrong kind of football for that!”
“Take off your Stanford jersey, ref!”
These disbelieving screams were a common occurrence during the game.
There’s no home cooking like that from the home team stands.
No-calls notwithstanding, the Cardinal surely risked shooting themselves in the foot with their numerous penalties.
Wake actually tied the game in the 70th minute — 1-1 — off a free penalty kick served up by midfielder Ian Harkes. The second half had seen an aggressive Wake resurgence, and with this long-awaited score, the crowd deafened itself.
And Wake kept steaming through the end of regulation, but their heroics couldn’t clinch the win.
Overtime began with 10 minutes put on the clock.
Stanford pulled an early punch off another questionable penalty kick in the fourth minute, granted to defender Brandon Vincent on a possible flop. High off the crossbar, and Wake Forest exploded with glee.
But Stanford midfielder Corey Baird stepped up for another free kick three minutes later.
He was far out — 35 yards from the goal. And the kick seemed inconsequential.
Then, Cardinal forward Foster Langsdorf headed it high into the net.
The only sound at Spry Stadium was the faraway cheering of the Cardinal players, stripping their jerseys, sprinting in triumph as the home team fell to their knees on the field.
But when you’re at home, it’s not just upsetting — it’s unsettling.
Stunned, crushing silence from the stands. The few Cardinal fans had a coming out party along the stands’ railing.
Yet, as the morose Deacons filed out of Spry Stadium, the awkwardly confident chant arose: “Wake… Forest!”
They’d already bought the dream, and they didn’t want to wake up. More power to them.