The departure of a four-year starting goalkeeper and three of four starters on the back line leaves Duke with a number of question marks for the 2013 campaign, but an explosive attack and a strong freshman class have the Blue Devils eying another deep postseason run.
After losing six players to graduation, including five who logged more than 1,000 minutes last year and two more to season-ending injuries in the spring, No. 8 Duke will face a period of adjustment as it opens its campaign this weekend with road games against No. 12 Texas A&M Friday and South Carolina Sunday.
“We’ve got a lot of different players and a lot of different looks to play,” head coach Robbie Church said. “We just haven’t settled, and I think games are going to decide that.”
Duke’s recently departed defensive core, goalkeeper Tara Campbell and defenders Erin Koballa, Libby Jandl and Maddy Haller, recorded a program-record 16 shutouts during the 2011 campaign and guided the Blue Devils to a national championship game appearance.
Season-ending injuries to midfielders Gilda Doria and Cassie Pecht in the spring also hurt the Blue Devils by taking away two of their top playmakers. The duo combined for 26 assists last year.
With the remaining players from that 2011 squad, however, Duke still packs a potent punch. The Blue Devils return two 16-goal scores from last year—redshirt senior Kim DeCesare and senior Laura Weinberg.
Joining them up front are senior Mollie Pathman and junior Kelly Cobb. Although the pair were limited last season by their commitment to play with the U.S. U-20 National Team, they combined for 17 goals and 20 assists in 2011. Cobb, who also struggled with injuries upon her return to Duke, is back in her freshman-year form, Church said.
Church emphasized the value of having this accomplished front line to set an example for younger players.
“We told them that this weekend especially… you have to be our leaders,” Church said. “You have to set the tone. You never know how the young players are going to react to playing in front of big crowds… but our attack players—a lot of them have national team experience. They’ve played in national championship games. They’ve played in big venues all over the country so they have to be our leaders, especially early so the rest of the young players catch up to them too.”
As for Duke’s open spots on defense, Church said he believes there are a number of players who could step up and make an impact.
Tabria Williford, a junior, will have the chance to prove herself in the back four after playing behind Maddy Haller during her first two seasons.
“She’s getting her opportunity,” Church said. “She’s a great, great athlete, and she’s learning the offensive side of the game and making big strides with it too.”
The freshman class has also made an impact in preseason, and Church said Duke might play as many as three or four freshman in its defensive alignment at times this year.
“These players were able to pick up on a lot of things in a short amount of time,” senior defender Natasha Anasi said. “We saw that in the Tennessee scrimmage.”
Raleigh-native Christina Gibbons started Duke’s scrimmage against Tennesee and was quick to leave a good impression, scoring in the first five minutes off a corner-kick service from Pathman.
“[Gibbons] has been outstanding from day one,” Church said. “Christina’s going to see a lot of time.”
Although the Blue Devil defense will have a number of new faces, having Anasi to anchor the unit will provide the squad with some stability. The senior was recently nominated to the Hermann Trophy watch list and last year was a semifinalist for the award, given annually to the top individual male and female soccer player in the country.
Duke will have to avoid relying on her too much though, Church cautioned.
“She’s always been a great leader, but we have to make sure that we don’t make her do so much for everybody else that it takes away from her quality,” he said. “She’s one of the top 11 college players in the country, no question—one of the top center backs in the country—and a staple back there, and we want her to have a great senior year.”
Despite the losses to graduation and injury, with Anasi and the junior and senior leaders on the offensive end, the Blue Devils still boast one of the most experienced rosters in the nation, a quality that will be vital as they start one of the nation’s most difficult nonconference schedules.
“The senior class and the junior class have been there before, so we know the road, we know the work, and we know what it takes to get there,” Cobb said.