In November of last year, Duke was in the midst of one of its strongest regular seasons in recent history. The Blue Devils posted just two losses in conference play and four losses overall entering the postseason and looked primed for another deep run into the NCAA Tournament.
Then West Virginia stepped in.
The Mountaineers ended Duke’s postseason run with a 1-0 win in the Elite Eight for their second head-to-head victory of the season, robbing the Blue Devils of a chance to avenge their national title loss to Penn State from the year prior.
Fast forward 10 months, and No. 11 Duke is gearing up to take on third-ranked West Virginia on the road Friday at 7 p.m., just before the ACC gauntlet begins. The Mountaineers are coming off a 2-1 win against then-No. 4 Penn State, but the Blue Devils are riding a five-game winning streak and back-to-back shutouts into Morgantown, W.V. One might assume Duke would have revenge on its mind in its first real test since falling to then-No. 6 North Carolina in overtime Aug. 18, but head coach Robbie Church insists that 2017 is a new year for the Blue Devils.
“I don’t think this is about the revenge for last year. This is about 2017 opportunity,” Church said. “I want it to be more of an opportunity for the 2017 team instead of revenge for the 2016 team. We’re building our own year.”
Associate head coach Erwin van Bennekom views the matchup differently:
“He says there’s no revenge?” the Netherlands native said. “It’s 100 percent revenge. 100 percent revenge.”
Whether it be for revenge or opportunity, Duke (5-1) will need to bring its best if it hopes to surmount the reigning national runner-ups. West Virginia (4-1) boasts an unrelenting offense which returns all but one of its top five scorers from last season. Senior Michaela Abam—who has led the team in scoring every year she has been in college and appears on the 2017 Hermann Trophy Watch List—once again leads West Virginia’s offensive charge with five points off two goals and an assist.
The Blue Devils will have to contain an attack that returns 85 percent of its goal-scoring from last season, but since implementing the four-back arrangement after losing starting defender Mia Gyau for the season, Duke’s defense has been airtight. Freshman Taylor Mitchell—who replaced Gyau in the starting lineup—has blended in seamlessly with the veteran defensive starters. The Blue Devils have allowed just one goal and 10 shots in the three games since adjusting their formation, a feat Church says will serve them well.
“Defensively, I thought we were really, really solid,” Church said. “The back four is really coming together. The more they play, the more they get to know each other, especially with Taylor Mitchell in the middle who is playing really well. She’s playing with a veteran group, but you can’t tell when you look out there who’s the freshman out there. That’s a real credit to her.”
The Mountaineers boast a strong defense of their own. After posting a nationwide-best 18 shutouts last season, West Virginia has held opponents to 8.0 shots and 0.6 goals per game through its first five contests. The Mountaineers are particularly skilled in the one-on-one game, and Duke—which is now just 13th in the ACC in assists per game—will have to get better at sharing the ball.
Even if they do so, the Blue Devils will have to find a way past sophomore netminder Rylee Foster, who owned the seventh-best goals against average in the nation last year. The Cambridge, Ontario, native has made 14 saves and boasts a 0.82 save percentage heading into Friday’s game.
“No question about it, they have the most athletic defense that we’ve seen so far,” Church said. “We want to go at them. We don’t want to go backwards. We want to go right at them, then be able to beat them and go to goal.”
As part of a trend dating back to last year’s loss to West Virginia, Duke has struggled to convert on opportunities in the attacking third. The Blue Devils outshot the Mountaineers 17-12 in that November matchup, but they failed to put a ball in the back of the net. Likewise, Duke’s scoring this season has been somewhat limited, especially considering it has averaged 18.7 shots per contest.
Senior captain Imani Dorsey—who has scored in the Blue Devils’ last five contests—leads the team with 11 points and five goals. West Virginia’s defense will likely look to lock her down, forcing sophomore Ella Stevens and juniors Taylor Racioppi and Kayla McCoy—a talented trio that has accounted for four goals so far—to ramp up their offense and spark Duke’s attack.
“Kayla, Taylor and Ella have created a lot of things, but they haven’t been as efficient as Imani when we go for it,” Church said. “We need to have those players, who are very, very talented players, just to be able to step up and finish some balls. We just have to be locked in, and when those opportunities come, we have to be able to finish.”
The Blue Devils will use this matchup to evaluate themselves on the national stage and prepare for ACC play. The conference boasts six top-20 teams, so Duke will need all the help it can get to prepare.
Friday’s game also serves as an opportunity for the Blue Devils to bolster their resume early on. An upset victory against a top-five opponent on the road could pay dividends in November, when the NCAA tournament committee decides seeding.
“This is why you come to Duke, is to play games like this,” Church said. “We do this even before the ACC, to find out where we are as a team on the national level. We don’t know that unless we step out into these venues. We’re playing one of the toughest teams in the country. We’re playing them on their field. These are games that are big that come back in November.”