Wake's whole greater than sum of parts
Coming out of high school in Cincinnati, Aubrey Bledsoe knew she would be playing with Katie Stengel and Rachel Nuzzolese at Wake Forest. The goalkeeper just didn't know much of anything else about the two forwards in her recruiting class. At least not until she found herself playing alongside them in Spain on the United States' under-18 national team.
It didn't take her long to come up with one more reason why Wake Forest had been a wise choice.
"I'm pretty grateful that I play with them and not against them," Bledsoe said with a laugh.
As Wake Forest prepares for its first College Cup appearance, Stengel and Nuzzolese are two wins from ensuring college soccer laments landing on the other side of that equation.
No two players in the field of four teams in Kennesaw, Ga., combined for more goals this season than Stengel (19) and Nuzzolese (11). No two players accounted for a greater percentage of their team's goals, a healthy 58 percent of all the balls the Demon Deacons put in the back of the net. The ACC Offensive Player of the Year, Stengel opened the season with two goals in her team's first game against Auburn. It wasn't until three months later, in the Sweet 16 against Penn State, that anyone other than Nuzzolese finally reached even three goals for the season.
"I would say Katie is probably the best forward I've seen with the ball under pressure," Bledsoe said. "She's amazing at turning, and just her finishing ability. She's very smart. She's scored some great goals -- I just watch in disbelief sometimes. Nuzz, too. She's really starting to heat up this postseason. She's a great finisher, she's got an excellent free kick and she's really fast. When they're both on, and they work together, they're unstoppable."
They're Jordan and Pippen, Ruth and Gehrig. No wonder that another ACC coach suggested at one point this season that when you watch video on Wake Forest, you watch video on two kids.
Except that somewhere along the way the math doesn't add up. The ACC is too good a league for a team with only two good players to lose just twice in conference play. A team doesn't go 2-1-1 against fellow College Cup participants Duke and Florida State with two good players, unless someone figured out a way to get Marta college eligibility. And that's the thing about Wake Forest: A team most easily defined by the individual talents of two players is here as much because of how well other parts blend together -- and blend in -- as the names on the marquee.
Start with Bledsoe and the back line she organizes. A season ago, Wake Forest gave up 29 goals in 24 games, including 14 in 10 ACC games. This season the Demon Deacons gave up 16 goals in 25 games and just six goals in 10 ACC games, including clean sheets against Florida State, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. It's a defense of three juniors and a freshman in front of a sophomore keeper, but it's a group that has been together for more games than not over the past two seasons, with the exception of freshman Kim Marshall.
"Last year, we played pretty timid, I would say," Bledsoe said of the defense. "Especially, I can speak for myself, the communication wasn't there, the accountability wasn't there. And then this year we just made it a commitment as a whole team to just dedicate ourselves to a whole 90 minutes of defending, and it's really paid off. I think we've all kind of matured. Obviously, our skills are a lot better, but I think mostly it's that commitment to putting in a whole game."
That goes for midfielder Kristen Meier, too. For all the talent that returned this season, Wake Forest lost its best two-way midfielder to graduation in Bianca D'Agostino. Meier spent a lot of time on the field her first two seasons, but coach Tony da Luz told her last spring the team needed more from her. She returned this fall in the best shape of her career and turned a question mark without D'Agostino into one of the team's strengths. She is tied for the team lead with eight assists and wins more balls and snuffs out more trouble than a box score will ever show.
"She's just an incredible link between the back line and front line," da Luz said. "She's got a great engine, and defensively she closes people down very, very quick, and she'll strip people. Kristen has been a whole other player this year. She just has incredible soccer instincts, when to go, when to slow it down, final ball. She's just the glue in there between the [forwards and defenders]. She's probably our most underrated player right now."
As it turns out, the one part of the plan that may still be coming together involves the two players linked on the stat sheet. Nuzzolese missed the second half of her freshman season with an injury, and Stengel missed time in the middle of this season with an injury, meaning the two have spent less time on the field together than the midfield and defense behind them. Yet since the start of the ACC tournament, one has assisted on a goal from the other on four occasions, the same number of times that happened throughout the full run of the regular season.
"When they do play together, when they do connect -- which still isn't enough for me -- but when they do, really special things happen," da Luz said. "So we're always encouraging them to find each other as much as possible."
As good as they are, and there's no doubt Wake Forest wouldn't be here without them, they can only finish what their teammates start.
Where most keepers celebrate by themselves, Bledsoe has taken to sprinting the length of the field to join in goal celebrations during the postseason, then sprinting back to retake her position. Considering the team has already scored 17 times in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, it's turning out to be quite the workout regimen.
"It is quite exhausting," Bledsoe conceded. "It's terrible to say because that's the only run that I make all game, really. But these goals are so big that I want to be a part of the celebration. If I do it for one, I've got to do it for them all. I try to go run and join, but usually by the time I get there, they're about done celebrating."
But it's a rather perfect indication that the secret of Wake Forest's success has more to do with 11 than it does with two.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.