With an impressive preseason already under their belts, the Blue Devils will look to continue their strong play in games that count.
After winning all three exhibition contests in more than a decade, Duke kicks off the regular season Friday night at 7:30 p.m. when it hosts Loyola Marymount at Koskinen Stadium as part of the John Rennie/Nike Invitational. The tournament features four teams—Elon and Stetson being the other two—each of which will play two games throughout the course of the weekend. The Blue Devils will conclude the invitational against Stetson Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.
“We’ve had a tremendous preseason,” head coach John Kerr said. “The three games were excellent. We all learned a lot, we’re progressing. I just like the way this team feels, the vibe is really great.”
Duke will face a stiff challenge Friday in the Lions, who are coming off a season in which they posted 13 wins and qualified for the NCAA tournament, losing a first-round match to Stanford on penalty kicks. Loyola Marymount plays in the West Coast Conference—which is also home to Brigham Young and Gonzaga—and the Blue Devils are embracing the opportunity to play a quality opponent from unfamiliar territory.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to play a team out of our region and a real talented team,” Kerr said. “They’re going to be a formidable opponent, they’re a good technical team, they have some size on set pieces and we know they’re dangerous on set pieces.”
Loyola Marymount is led by a strong midfield tandem of sophomore Adrien Perez and senior John McFarlin, who combined for 46 points last season. Perez racked up 11 goals during his freshman campaign and is the primary scoring option for the Lions, while McFarlin—who set a school record with 11 assists in 2013—acts as the facilitator for the entire offense.
Duke will attempt to slow down Loyola Marymount’s attack with a new face in goal. The Blue Devils lost year’s consistent presence between the pipes in Alex Long—who started every game and posted a goals-against average of 0.93—to graduation and are taking a goalie-by-committee approach for the time being. Freshman Joe Ohaus received extensive playing time in the preseason and allowed just one goal, but Kerr is also looking at the three other goalies on the roster—Wade Clement, Wilson Fisher and Simon Omholt-Jenson— for minutes in net.
“I don’t want to make a decision [about the starting goalkeeper] until we have a couple of games,” Kerr said. “We still haven’t made that final decision yet….Joe and Wilson have done a great job, and Simon and Wade are coming along as well. So we’re really strong in the goalkeeper department.”
On the offensive end, Duke will feature a mix of youth and experience as it tries to improve an attack that scored only 25 goals in 19 contests last season. Senior midfielder Sean Davis—serving his second year as a team captain—was tied for the team lead with six goals last year and will remain the focal point of the offense, but he will have plenty of help. The Blue Devils return their top five scorers from last year, including forward Brody Huitema, who matched Davis with six goals scored as a freshman last season.
Even with several key contributors coming back, Duke recruited a freshman class of 13 to help improve on last year’s 9-5-8 record. Two of the newcomers—forward Jeremy Ebobisse and midfielder Brian White—were named to Top Drawer Soccer’s Division I Preseason Best XI. Kerr is particularly excited about this group, not just for their on-field talents, but also for the way they’ve conducted themselves as they prepare for their first collegiate games.
“The seniors and the upperclassmen in general have really led the way and made a big effort during the summer to communicate and get to know the freshmen,” Kerr said. “Once they landed on campus, it seemed like everyone was really understanding of each other. So that was a big step and the freshmen’s attitude, set forth by the leadership of the upperclassmen, has been tremendous.”
Stetson—coming off a three-win season and fielding a roster with 18 underclassmen—will provide a bit of a different challenge Sunday for the Blue Devils. Faced with the challenge of preparing for a team that is still very much developing, Kerr is planning to watch closely as the Hatters take on Elon Friday, allowing his team to stay focused on the opener against the Lions in the meantime.
“Luckily for us, we’ll get to see [Stetson] Friday and see what they’re all about,” Kerr said. “I haven’t done as much homework on Stetson as I have on Loyola….but I think if we continue to progress like we have so far, we’ll give [Loyola Marymount] a really good match on Friday night.”