The Blue Devils have competed in the NCAA Tournament for 10 consecutive seasons. Their opponent, Miami of Ohio, is at this stage for the first time since 2002. But the red-hot RedHawks enter this game as the only team in Division I with 20 wins this year.
The third-seeded Blue Devils will take on a streaking Miami (20-2-1) team at 4 p.m. Friday at Klockner Stadium in Charlottesville, Va. for the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“The [RedHawks have] unbelievable belief in themselves,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “That’s a lot of wins. I don’t care who they’ve played and what conference they’re playing in.... They feel like they’re the Cinderella team of the tournament. They feel like they can do no wrong, so that’s a dangerous team.”
The Blue Devils (13-5-2) are coming off a 6-0 win against Loyola Maryland in Durham. The RedHawks advanced in a more nerve-wracking manner, defeating Tennessee 3-2 in overtime on the road with what Church described as a “miracle goal.”
This will be the second consecutive game that Duke plays a conference champion. The RedHawks qualified for the tournament after winning the Mid-American Conference tournament. Miami also won the regular season going through their conference slate undefeated and are on a school-record 16-game unbeaten streak.
Not often do the Blue Devils play a team with a more productive offense, but the RedHawks have scored 59 goals this season, one more than Duke has. Miami has also conceded two fewer goals on the season, despite playing three more games Regardless of their opponent, however, the Blue Devils have made the focus about themselves. They are striving for consistency in a season that has lacked it. Duke’s longest winning run spanned just four games.
“It’s just keeping our focus, keeping our consistency and sharing the ball,” Church said. “[Against Loyola Maryland] we saw a lot of ball movement instead of people running with the ball, so we’ve got to continue to play at that level. We can’t go back to some of the older habits.”
The Blue Devils will once again look to its midfielders for creativity to link the play. Of the six goals scored in the win against the Greyhounds, five were from the midfield.
At the heart of the team’s midfield is junior Kaitlyn Kerr, who recorded her first career hat trick over the weekend. Church said that whenever Kerr plays well it “just energizes everybody.”
“It’s about really playing my game,” Kerr said. “I think college soccer is just crazy sometimes—you’re getting so many pressures from all different angles. What I do best is I pass and move, and I just really go back to basics and thinking of what I do best and sticking to my mentality.”
Kerr, who is recognizable from the large knee brace she wears on the field, has gone through three different surgeries during her career in Durham. She said that the injury is still hurting, and that she will have it checked by a doctor again after the season.
“Everybody understands what Kaitlyn’s been through to be on the field,” Church said. “Ninety-nine percent of the players out there wouldn’t be able to go through what she’s gone through. And for her to come back and play, and play at the level she plays at, it’s pretty amazing.”
Kerr’s role as an attacking midfielder is to draw the opposing defender away from the forwards to open up space for the Blue Devils.
Because of her school-record nine career goals in the NCAA Tournament, Church describes Kerr as a “big time player.” But Kerr values the team aspect of the game more than her goal tally.
“I don’t even really like scoring, actually,” she said. “I don’t care about scoring and everyone can’t get over that or can’t believe me. I think that it’s a team effort, and the way we played in that game was a depiction of why we won 6-0. Everyone was sharing the ball.”
This will be the first meeting between the two teams, and Kerr said that the Blue Devils will not be changing the way they play for their new opponent.
“What we need to do no, matter who we play, is stick to our game plan and not change for anyone else,” Kerr said. “In the past we’ve changed our game plans too much to the other team and worried about them, whereas I think we need to just worry about ourselves and what we do best.”
Should Duke triumph against the RedHawks, the team will face the winner of the match between second-seeded Virginia and Rutgers, who play after the Blue Devils.
A potential Sunday contest against the Cavaliers will be a rematch of Duke’s 1-0 loss in conference play, while the Scarlet Knights will be lesser-known to the team.
One Blue Devil, however, will be very familiar with a Rutgers player. Callie Simpkins’ sister, Emmy, is the starting goalkeeper for the Scarlet Knights. Callie said she was excited to finally see her sister in action in what could potentially be her sister’s last college game.
The first task for Duke, though, is to serve the RedHawks their first loss in two months.
“We’re feeling great. We’re taking it one game at a time and we’re really confident going into the weekend,” Callie said.