After a nightmarish season that resulted in the departure of defensive coach Lars Keil, little was to be expected of Duke’s backline this year.

Especially considering it lost all but one of its starters, both its team captains and has just two seniors within the current unit.

Needless to say, the defense had the odds stacked against them. 

But behind the leadership of new assistant coach Bria Irizarry, the new-look No. 10 Blue Devils have impressed to start the season, ranking 25th in goals allowed per game despite playing two quality opponents in Elon and then-No. 9 Northwestern, as well as Campbell.

“The whole team feels this feeling of redemption,” senior Anne Slusser, the lone returning defensive starter, said. “We talked before the game about our drive and hunger and how it was so evident that when we got on the field [in our season opener] against Elon, all of us were so ready.”

Last season, the defense was a major reason why the team flopped, as Duke surrendered at least 10 goals in 12 contests on its way to missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since its inaugural season in 1996.

Despite having senior All-American Maura Schwitter and co-captain Isabelle Montagne, along with classmate Devon Russell, the Blue Devils were out of sorts defensively last year, as they tried to switch to a zone scheme to combat the introduction of the shot clock.

So after the season, head coach Kerstin Kimel decided to shake things up, especially with nearly an entirely new defensive group, starting with their coach. Irizarry had not planned to end up in Durham and was coaching under Duke alumna Kristen Waagbo at Army, where the duo was working to get the team off the ground after its inaugural 2015-16 season.

But when Irizarry’s husband, Danny, had to relocate to North Carolina for his job, Irizarry found the perfect opening. After creating a relationship with Kimel during her own recruitment—Irizarry was a two-time team captain at Richmond, graduating in 2011—and through Duke’s summer camps, which she attended both as a player and coach, Irizarry reached out to Kimel, hoping to coach the defense.

The agreement was soon finalized, and due to Irizarry’s familiarity with Kimel’s style, little adjustment had to be made. With such an inexperienced unit, the two felt that they could experiment with different schemes, which has paid dividends thus far.

“There’s a lot of newness. It’s an opportunity for us to do some different things we haven’t done,” Kimel said. “It’s a good opportunity to change some things defensively so that we have more things and more looks in our repertoire than just a man-to-man and a face guard.” 

The early returns have been accelerated by the efforts of two freshmen—Gigi Vasile and Natalie Kahn—as well as a strong start for goalkeeper Gabbe Cadoux in her second season between the pipes. Through the first two weeks, the Blue Devils have swept ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors, with Vasile and Cadoux grabbing the awards.

The Blue Devils’ defensive mojo started immediately—specifically on their first possession of the year. Despite getting it into the attacking zone early in the shot clock, Elon could not find a shooting lane, and the shot clock violation buzzer sounded, eliciting a brand of excitement missing from last season.

It seems as though Irizarry’s coaching style has rubbed off on the players.

“When I get onto the field, I think the girls know I’m a pretty open book,” Irizarry said. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve, so if I’m not super impressed with something, they know about it, and when I’m really pumped if they’re doing well, they definitely see that emotion come out of me.”

Still, despite being just three games in, the defense seems to have turned the page under Irizarry’s guidance this season.

“I’m not somebody who usually shies away from a challenge, but I definitely think it’s a little bit more fun,” Irizarry said. “This team is looking to recreate themselves, and with a new defensive coach, I’m a firm believer that change can definitely be a good thing.”