In what was the most anticipated regular-season match since 2012, JMU men’s soccer took the field against perennial powerhouse and No. 1-ranked Wake Forest. 

The Dukes didn’t receive votes in the current national polls, while the Demon Deacons are the consensus first-ranked team in all three major college soccer polls. 

On paper, Wake Forest was the favorite. 

But, in its audition to break into national title contention, JMU came out as victors, defeating WFU 1-0 after senior midfielder Manuel Ferriol broke the deadlock in the second half. 

“Amazing,” Ferriol said. “It’s an amazing feeling. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

Fifty-two minutes into the contest, Ferriol waited for the referee’s signal to take a free kick — one the Dukes thought should’ve been a penalty — as the foul took place in the penalty area. Just outside the 18-yard box, the Spaniard’s shot went past redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg’s outstretched arms. 

“I [thought] it was too close to put it over the wall, so I said, ‘Nah, I’ve got to hit it to the post,’” Ferriol said. “I just hit it there and, fortunately, it went in.”

Ferriol’s goal pushed JMU over the line after frustrating opportunities didn’t bounce its way. As each cross or shot was blocked, the worry of if the Dukes would score began to increase. However, a smooth free kick washed all anxiety away and paved a road to a top-rank takedown.

The first half was filled with missed chances on both sides. Just over five minutes into the match, Ferriol received the ball from nearly 20 yards out and attempted to beat Pannenberg. His effort went wide, but it showed the Dukes were ready to fight the No. 1 ranked team. Twenty minutes later, Ferriol once again came close to opening the scoring. This time, his long-distance effort rattled the crossbar to the dismay of JMU fans, but the attacking mentality kept the atmosphere at a high level.

The end of the first half saw both teams scoreless, meaning halftime adjustments could prove to be the difference. JMU head coach Paul Zazenski said he wanted his team to remain focused and keep the match in front of them, both of which the Dukes did successfully in the second half. 

“Sometimes, the X’s and O’s absolutely don’t matter,” Zazenski said. “It’s just a willingness to win, and I think we had that tonight.”

For the first hour of play, JMU was the team on the front foot. It had controlled possession and minimized legitimate scoring opportunities from Wake Forest. Then, momentum shifted in the 61st minute when the Dukes were given a penalty. 

Pannenberg denied goalscorer Ferriol to keep the deficit at one. From then on, the Demon Deacons pressed the JMU back line in search of an equalizer and a potential game-winner. 

Fourteen minutes later, Wake Forest was gifted a chance to level the score. The referee awarded a penalty to it, setting up a showdown between redshirt junior goalkeeper TJ Bush and senior midfielder Bruno Lapa. Bush denied the Brazilian’s penalty in what was a crucial moment in the Herndon, Virginia, native’s third shutout of the season. He also accumulated a season-high 7 saves. 

“I’ve said it before and I’ll always say it: It’s all about the preparation,” Bush said. “You watch for their hips to move, you watch for their eyes to move, whatever. He gave me a signal he was going one way, and I just went all the way for it.”

Wake Forest had three shots over the remainder of the match, but none of them went past Bush. It was the first time the Demon Deacons didn’t score in a regular-season match since October 2018.

“It’s a big one, obviously,” Bush said. “People will just remember the result. That legacy is a big thing for us, but also, we have big games coming up and it’s nowhere near the end of the road.”

Bush gave praise to his defense’s effort in stifling the Wake Forest attack. WFU averaged 12.5 shots per game but was held to 10 on Tuesday. It also averaged 7.2 corners per game but only had four against JMU. 

The defense has been the cornerstone in the Dukes’ rapid rise to national prominence. Junior defender Tom Judge’s proven ability as a wingback who can make defensive stops and contribute to the team’s attack, and sophomore defender Melker Anshelm’s experience, are two areas that lead to the backline being tough to break. Senior midfielder Fernando Casero also assists the defense with his physical playing style, serving as the team’s holding midfielder.

“We know how good we really are, and we had faith in ourselves from the pregame until the 90th minute,” Judge said. “I don’t think we ever lost that faith, our energy. We kept the pressure on them.”

All 1,453 fans were treated to an exciting match that could go in the history books as a turning point for the JMU men’s soccer program. It showed its run to the 2018 Men’s College Cup quarterfinals wasn’t a fluke, and the team’s aspirations of a national championship aren’t far from being accomplished.

“Tonight was the best environment we’ve ever had at James Madison while I’ve been here,” Zazenski said. “We owe that all to the crowd and the people that came out and supported us.”

The Dukes — now 4-2-0 (2-0-0 CAA) — shift their attention to Mount St. Mary’s, a match that’ll kick off at 7 p.m. Saturday. Wake Forest (5-1-0, 1-0-0 ACC) will return to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and look to get back to winning ways against ACC foe Syracuse. 

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.