Under the ACC’s new unbalanced scheduling format for men’s soccer this season, Duke and N.C. State weren’t scheduled to play during the regular season. As members of different divisions, they weren’t involved in the three crossover games in the eight-game slate.
But the neighboring rivals have been thrown together in the first round of the ACC men’s soccer championship, where seventh-seeded Duke (8-8-1, 4-4-0) will host 10th seed N.C. State (7-6-4, 1-4-3) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Koskinen Stadium.
The winner will advance to Sunday’s 1 p.m. quarterfinal at No. 2 seed Syracuse (14-2-1, 5-2-1). The semifinals and final are set for Nov. 14-16 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
The other first-round game Wednesday will have ninth-seeded Virginia Tech (7-7-2, 2-5-1) at eighth-seeded Virginia (9-5-2, 3-3-2). Third-seeded North Carolina (12-4-1, 5-2-1) has a bye until Sunday, when it will host No. 6 seed Louisville (8-6-3, 4-3-1) at 1 p.m.
Duke’s turnaround: After a five-game losing streak, Duke has reeled off three consecutive wins. One more victory would make the Blue Devils eligible for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, although their RPI of 51 keeps them firmly on the bubble right now.
The winning streak has come despite injuries that cost coach John Kerr two key starters, junior midfielder Zach Mathers and freshman goalkeeper Joe Ohaus.
Mathers, a co-captain, was leading Duke in minutes played until he tore his MCL last week. Ohaus had started every match until suffering concussion symptoms.
Wilson Fisher, a senior who had played only 21 minutes of mop-up duty during his career, has started the past four matches in goal, beginning with a 2-1 loss at Elon. He followed up with 2-1 victories over Pittsburgh and Georgia State and a 2-0 win against Virginia Tech for his first shutout.
“He’s done a great job,” said Kerr, who got his 150th victory as a head coach against Pitt. “He mentioned in his (postgame) quotes that he’s been waiting a long time to get in the starting lineup, and he’s making the most of it.”
Freshman Cody Brinkman of Durham’s Jordan High has taken over at holding midfielder for Mathers.
Another key performer lately for Duke has been sophomore forward Brody Huitema. He has four goals and two assists in the past five games, giving him five goals and five assists overall.
“He’s the beginning of our defensive stance and our main target as a striker,” Kerr said. “He’s decided to up his energy level, which is great for us because if he’s energetic, he’s very talented and dangerous.”
Kerr said that N.C. State poses a difficult task defensively.
“They’re a solid team, difficult to break down because they get a lot of guys behind the ball,” he said. “We’ll have to be very good on set pieces and very good on the counterattack.”
The Pack is back: N.C. State put together a strong showing in October to turn its season around, picking up four wins and two ties in eight matches. The highlights duringthat run were a 2-1 victory over Louisville, then ranked No. 5 in the nation, and a 0-0 tie 10 days ago with Syracuse, which this week took over the No. 1 position in the coaches’ poll.
“I think when you’re as young as we are, it takes a little time to get up to speed, so to speak,” Wolfpack coach Kelly Findley said. “You hope with your learning curve you can handle that, and I think we’ve done that and seen the benefits in October.
“(Goalkeeper) Alex McCauley has been steady, and our back four has grown as a unit. Players like Zach Knudson, Michael Bajza and Holden Fender are really starting to get it done.”
N.C. State also has been battling the injury bug. Senior forward Nick Surkamp, who still is tied for the team scoring lead despite missing the past six games, is out for the season after knee surgery.
Senior defender Ryan Metts returned after a five-game absence because of a bone bruise in his foot, playing half the game last week against Liberty, but he then sat out last Friday’s 2-0 loss at Clemson.
Findley said the Wolfpack had to sweat out the final minutes of the Boston College-Syracuse match Friday just to get into the ACC tournament. A Boston College victory would have eliminated the Wolfpack, but Syracuse won in overtime, 2-1.
“All the pressure is on Duke,” he said. “They are playing at home, they finished higher than us, and they have history on their side. All that being said, our team always looks forward to a challenge.”
Academic honors: Seven local players have been named to the Capital One All-Academic Team for District 4 by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Duke is represented by senior midfielder Sean Davis and senior defender Nat Eggleston on the men’s team and redshirt junior goalkeeper Ali Kershner and sophomore defender-midfielder Christina Gibbons on the women’s team.
North Carolina landed redshirt senior forward Rob Lovejoy and junior defender Jonathan Campbell.
The other area player is Clemson senior midfielder Katelyn Reeve, who attended Panther Creek High in Cary.
They now are eligible to be considered for Academic All-America honors by CoSIDA.