Wake Forest defeated Holly Springs 3-0 on the road to win their first eastern regional championship since 1996.
Contributed Photo by Jim Thompson.
Chris Steg, right, leads Wake Forest with 15 goals this year.
Marty Simpkins | The Wake Weekly
Chris Guccio scored two goals for the Cougars in their 3-0 win at Holly Springs.
Marty Simpkins | The Wake Weekly
By Marty Simpkins | email@example.com
HOLLY SPRINGS — Wake Forest’s boys soccer team took down the No. 1 seed Holly Springs 3-0 on the road to win their first regional championship since 1996 Tuesday night.
The Cougars scored two goals in the first half and then added one more in the second. Their defense shut down Holly Springs, a team that was shut out only once this year in a 3-0 loss at Cardinal Gibbons Sept. 3.
The shutout at Holly Springs was Wake Forest’s 12th shutout of the year. Wake Forest head coach Rick Pittarelli praised his players for putting up one of their best defensive efforts of the season against a Holly Springs team that has scored 91 goals this year.
“Our defense has played well all season,” Pittarelli said. “The guys have had some great games. We had to do some homework in a short period of time. We knew we had to stop Holly Springs from scoring in the first half. We could not give them any room to score on us.”
Chris Guccio scored two goals for Wake Forest in the win at Holly Springs. Khalil Gueye scored the other one for the Cougars.
Guccio has been a force on offense all season with 10 goals and nine assists as a senior. He has also played on varsity all four years of his high school career.
“Chris is an unsung hero,” Pittarelli said. “He is highly talented. He has this ability to create where most people would think the door is shut. It was his night. He was on fire at Holly Springs.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Wake Forest was regarded as a low-level soccer program. The Cougars went winless in 2011 and in 2016, they finished with an overall record of 5-18.
Wake Forest hasn’t made the state championship since they were a 3A school back in 1996. The Cougars had a rough transition when they went to 4A with only one state playoff appearance from the late 90’s to 2016.
Since Pittarelli took over as head coach in 2017, Wake Forest has had three straight winning seasons and made the playoffs every year. He and assistant head coach Elias Zaytoun helped establish a winning culture and a foundation of building success.
“It’s special to go to states,” Pittarelli said. “This group of boys are great. When I took over three years ago, we started doing some good things. I feel very blessed to experience this opportunity with them.”
Wake Forest’s 4A state playoff run kicked off with a bye week in the first round as the No. 2 seed and then a 5-0 win over Enloe Nov. 9 in the second round. Then in the third round, the Cougars ran into some difficulty with Apex Friendship.
After a scoreless first half, Apex Friendship went up 1-0 44 seconds into the second half. Chris Steg tied the game back up with a goal six minutes later. The match went back and forth from there.
Apex Friendship took back the lead with 15:40 left in the game. Then six minutes later, James Holmes took advantage on an Apex Friendship mishap when they passed the ball backwards to their goalkeeper. The junior forward kicked the ball in to tie the match at 2-2.
Four minutes later, Guccio scored a goal to give the Cougars a 3-2 lead. The senior sent the ball into the top part of the net where it tipped off the goalie’s fingertips.
However, Apex Friendship tied the game again. The Patriots scored off a free kick with a header goal to make it a 3-3 match with four minutes left in the game. That sent the match to overtime.
No one scored in the first period of overtime. Then with five seconds left in the final overtime period, Justin Palmer scored the game-winning goal for Wake Forest off an assist from Guccio.
“When the ball went out to the wing, I knew there was going to be a crossover,” Palmer said. “When Chris Guccio hit the cross, the ball went right to me. I prepared myself, adjusted and put the ball in.”
Pittarelli said Palmer did what he needed to do to win the game for the Cougars.
“I always tell my players to always play their position the way they know how,” Pittarelli said. “Justin was playing his position the way he was supposed to. I’m glad he got it into the back of the net.”
It was the second overtime game for Wake Forest this season. They won their last one in a 3-2 victory over Heritage Oct. 3. Pittarelli said the players remained calm under pressure to get the big playoff win.
“We’ve been in a lot of different situations this year,” Pittarelli said. “It’s the resiliency that these guys have that makes a difference. They have a fighting spirit. They never give up. They’re not going to quit. Finally, it went our way.”
That win led Wake Forest to the fourth round of the 4A state playoffs against Hoggard Nov. 16. The Cougars only scored one goal, but it was all they needed as they shut out the Vikings 1-0. Steg scored the only goal of the match off an assist from Guccio.
“We didn’t capitalize on opportunities to score,” Pittarelli said. “We took away Hoggard’s method of moving the ball. That allowed us to capitalize on that game. Hoggard played very well. We stayed focused and made sure we limited our mistakes.”
After that win over Hoggard, Wake Forest traveled to Holly Springs for the 4A east regional championship. With the shutout win over the Golden Hawks, the Cougars put themselves in the 4A state championship game.
“In order to come out as state champs, we have to play Wake Forest soccer,” Pittarelli said. “We play blue collar soccer. You have to limit your mistakes and focus on your game play. We have to follow through and put the ball in the back of the net.”
Wake Forest will play R.J. Reynolds out of Winston-Salem in the 4A state championship Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Koka Booth Stadium in WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.