After last year’s national championship game loss to Stanford, the Blue Devils looked to earn another shot at winning the national title at the start of this season, having lost no starters to graduation.
Behind one of the most prolific offensive attacks in program history, third-seeded Duke advanced to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals for the second consecutive year but ultimately fell two victories short of returning to the finals, losing 1-0 to top-seeded Penn State.
“I’m definitely happy about how it went up until the last game,” redshirt junior Kim DeCesare said. “Obviously the elite eight game was a disappointment…. It was a bit of a bummer, but it doesn’t define our whole season.”
The 2011 season had left the Blue Devils with a lot to live up to. With 22 wins, 16 shutouts, and an ACC regular season championship, Duke had staked its claim as one of the nation’s powerhouses.
Ranked second in this year’s preseason poll, the Blue Devil squad was certainly considered to be a national championship contender again.
“[This year] was a year that we hadn’t been through in the sense that such high expectations were on us, and I thought the kids that handled that very well,” head coach Robbie Church said.
In addition to those high expectations, the Blue Devils also had to face the challenge of beginning the season without two of their three top scorers from the 2011 campaign.
Winning the 2012 under-20 women’s world championship in Japan for the U.S., Duke forwards Mollie Pathman and Kelly Cobb both missed the first seven regular season games for the Blue Devils.
“It was a huge loss not having them at the beginning of the season,” DeCesare said. “[But] ultimately, it was very helpful for us because it created more depth for us on the field and on the bench.”
The 2012 Duke squad certainly picked up the slack on the offensive end. In fact, the team finished the season with the most points and tied for the most second-most goals scored in program history for a single season.
DeCesare, who had played mostly midfield and scored seven career goals prior to this year, moved up to the front line in the absence of Pathman and Cobb, scoring 16 goals and finishing 18th in goals per game nationally.
“We knew she could score goals from scoring goals from the midfield last year, but can I sit here and say that I knew she was going to score 16 goals?” Church said. “No. It’s just incredible…. Wherever you put Kimmy she’s going to excel in that area. She has such a great drive.”
With 16 goals of her own, junior Laura Weinberg also led the Blue Devil attack, especially as DeCesare and Cobb battled midseason injuries.
The forward, who now is tied for fourth on Duke’s all-time scoring list, took her goal-scoring ability to a more consistent level, Church said.
While veterans DeCesare and Weinberg increased their offensive production, the Blue Devils also added another dynamic to their attack in freshman Cassie Pecht.
The TopDrawerSoccer.com Rookie of the Year led the NCAA in assists, helping Duke notch a program-best 77 assists this season.
The Blue Devil front line also provided high-pressure defending in the first two thirds of the field.
“One of the most important things that the forwards did this year that goes overlooked and can’t be read by statistics is that they defended,” senior defender Erin Koballa said. “They were our first line of defense, game in and game out. They forced probably more turnovers than we [did].”
Koballa, and fellow seniors Libby Jandl and Maddie Haller all returned to anchor the back line along with junior Natasha Anasi this season. Having played together since starting nearly every game as sophomores, the senior group had played a major part in taking Duke from a good to a great program, Church said. “[We] have such a special connection. We joke around even when we’re walking around campus that we’re in our formation,” Koballa said “It gets to the point where you can read each other’s thoughts and actions before they even happen.”
Last year, thanks to their veteran defenders and senior goalkeeper Tara Campbell, the Blue Devils had one of the nation’s stingiest defenses—allowing just .48 goals per game.
Despite its efforts this year, Duke’s defense—missing junior Alex Straton due to an ACL tear—showed a drop in performance from the previous season. The Blue Devils posted a goals-against average of 1.07 this season.
“Holding a team to about goal a game—a little more than a goal a game—in the conference that we play in is still an incredible feat by them,” Church said. “But they’re the first to say that some more goals went in than they did in the past.”
The goals-against average still ranked as the ninth-best season total in program history, and the squad’s season-ending loss came against the nation’s top scoring offense on a penalty kick.
With the loss of Campbell and the senior defenders, rebuilding the defense will pose the biggest challenge for the future of the program.
“We return a lot of firepower [next year]… but we’re going to lose the defensive personality of our team,” Church said. “So that’s going to be a real question mark about where we’re going to go next year.”
Next year though, without any national team commitments, Duke might return its entire offensive arsenal from the end of the season. If DeCesare and fellow redshirt Callie Simpkins opt to use their last year of eligibility, all 10 Blue Devils who scored this year will return.
“We’re obviously still chasing a national championship,” DeCesare said. “And I don’t think that’s going to change next year, and we’re going to have the same expectations.”