Beginning with its run to the national championship game in 2011, Duke’s defensive intensity has been at the core of the team’s success. But after losing goalkeeper Tara Campbell and defenders Erin Koballa, Maddy Haller and Libby Jandl to graduation, senior Natasha Anasi is the lone remaining member of the Blue Devils’ fearsome back line.
As Anasi prepares to anchor Duke’s defensive unit once again in 2013, head coach Robbie Church said he wants to avoid relying too heavily on his stalwart center back as the Blue Devils begin to work new players into the defensive rotation.
“We have to be careful that we don’t put too much pressure on Natasha that it takes away from her quality game that she has,” Church said. “We don’t want her to play everybody’s position. She has to direct a lot back there, so her role has changed some, but she’s always been a great leader for us.”
A native of Arlington, Texas, Anasi has left her mark on a program known for its defensive tenacity under Church’s leadership. Anasi saw significant playing time as a reserve during her freshman season before carving out a spot for herself in Duke’s starting lineup as a sophomore.
Church was effusive in his praise of his senior leader.
“She’s one of the top center backs in the country,” Church said. “She can defend, she can attack, she’s great in the air, she’s athletic—she’s really the whole package.”
Thanks to Anasi and her now-graduated cohorts in the backfield, the Blue Devils have used stubborn defense to make deep postseason runs in the past three years. In Anasi’s freshman season, Duke allowed just one goal per game and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament. In 2011, the Blue Devils clicked on all cylinders, allowing 0.50 goals per game and falling 1-0 to Stanford in the national championship match.
Last season, the defense was spotty at times, but became less porous down the stretch as the Blue Devils advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals.
Entering her senior campaign, Anasi must mentor the next generation of Duke defenders if the team is to make another serious run at an elusive first national title. So far, she likes what she has seen.
“I’m thoroughly impressed by how fast they were able to learn [the system],” Anasi said. “The experience we have in other positions has been helpful because they were able to do the jobs they needed to do but also help these younger players. I’ve been trying to give them all the knowledge that I have.”
Church agreed that his new faces are performing quite well given their limited exposure to the Duke defensive scheme. Freshmen defenders Christina Gibbons and Lizzy Raben both started and played the full 90 minutes in Duke’s second regular season game against South Carolina, while defender Malinda Allen and midfielder Toni Payne also saw game action. Nevertheless, the defense remains very much a work in progress.
“We have to teach them a whole new system,” Church said. “It’s a lot of little things, they’re very talented, but they’re still learning. It’s not all just instinct like it was with the older players.”
The freshmen are not the only fresh faces to crack the Blue Devil starting lineup. Junior Tabria Williford is getting a chance to play on a regular basis after sitting behind the now-graduated Haller for two seasons.
Anasi said having two experienced—though not game-tested—keepers in redshirt junior Meghan Thomas and redshirt sophomore Ali Kershner has helped her teach the incoming defenders.
“Having two keepers who are pretty experienced, even though they didn’t get much experience because Tara Campbell was here, having another voice behind me is extremely helpful because it helps organize things back there,” Anasi said.
As Duke’s defense continues to grow and experiment with different players in different spots, Church said he can rely on Anasi as the key of a developing unit, linking the Blue Devils’ past successes to future aspirations.
“We’re sort of like a Rubik’s Cube: we’re trying to find the right people to put at the right places,” Church said. “The last two years most of our starting lineup has been intact, so this is a little refreshing.”