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CARY — After going 23 years since their last state title, Wake Forest's boys soccer team brought a championship back home with a 2-0 win over R.J. Reynolds from Winston-Salem in the 4A state championship match at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary Saturday afternoon.
The Cougars scored two goals in the final five minutes of the contest to defeat the Demons.
Wake Forest head coach Rick Pittarelli said his defense played tough against the No. 1 seed from the west.
"It's amazing what our defense did against R.J. Reynolds," Pittarelli said. "Right now, I'm at a loss for words. I'm just honored to play a part in this with these guys."
The first goal of the match came from Abdoulie Sanneh, who was later named the Most Valuable Player of the game. After a scoreless first half, Wake Forest lined up for a free kick with five minutes left in the match. Austin Talmadge sent a long ball to the middle of the penalty box. Sanneh, who only had two goals to his name prior to the state championship match, landed a header on the ball. It went into the back of the net for the first point of the contest.
"We always work on that play in practice," Sanneh said. "I always try to head the ball in. I'm tall, so I took advantage of that on the play."
Pittarelli said there wasn't too much time to celebrate just yet. He knew R.J. Reynolds had the firepower to get back into the game.
"As soon as Abdoulie scored, the first thing I did was look at the clock," Pittarelli said. "I knew we had to play tight defense for the rest of those five minutes. Abdoulie was at the right place at the right time. He got us that important goal."
Later on, R.J. Reynolds pushed their entire team forward to try and tie the game up with some aggressive offense. However, that strategy allowed Wake Forest to counter once they got the ball back. With eight seconds left, Justin Palmer scored an easy goal for the Cougars by taking the goalkeeper one-on-one. That sealed the deal for Wake Forest, earning them their first state championship since 1996.
Afterward, Sanneh was named MVP for his play on defense, plus scoring the crucial first goal of the match.
"I can't believe I'm the MVP," Sanneh said. "This is all from the work of my teammates. I couldn't do it without them."
On Nov. 23, 1996, former head coach Chuck Hess led the Wake Forest boys soccer team to their first state championship win. Back then, they played in the 3A class. Hess, along with several of the players from that 1996 championship squad, joined the Cougars on the field after the win to celebrate the 23-year anniversary of the state championship with a second one to add to the school's legacy.
"I'm honored just to be a part of this," Pittarelli said. "It was 23 years ago to this day that the 1996 team won the state championship. That's what these guys get to carry with them. They are the next team."
Wake Forest finished the 2019 season with a school-record 21 wins. They will say goodbye to 14 seniors. Most of them were on varsity when Pittarelli first took over as head coach in 2016.
Since 1996, Wake Forest had a long stretch of losing seasons. Back in 2015, the Cougars went 5-18 overall. Things changed for the better when Pittarelli took over in 2016, resulting in three straight winning seasons and 4A state playoff appearances. Those three years of building a culture and making Wake Forest believe that they can go back to being a winning team again paid off with a state title.
In recent years, Wake Forest has been known as a football school. Their team has won the 4AA state title three years in a row. At the soccer state title match, the students were chanting "Soccer school!" after the win. That's something the Wake Forest players will take with them wherever they go.
"It's amazing to be a state champion," Sanneh said. "This is all we've worked for."