Last year’s NCAA tournament loss to Penn State in the quarterfinals marked the end of an era for the Duke program, as Tara Campbell had played her last game in goal for the Blue Devils. Head coach Robbie Church knew that replacing the four-year starter would not be easy, but felt confident in Ali Kershner and Meghan Thomas, the two goalkeeper waiting in the wings.
Eight games into the 2013 campaign, Kershner has emerged as a force in net for the Blue Devils. The redshirt sophomore has recorded three shutouts in her first six collegiate starts, allowing just five goals against some of the nation’s toughest competition.
“We thought we were going to score some goals, but with such a young back line and a new goalkeeper, we thought we might give up some goals,” Church said. “It’s almost been the reverse. [Kershner] has been very solid against one of the toughest schedules in the country.”
The process of replacing Campbell and three starting defenders from last year’s squad began last spring.
Per NCAA rules, teams are allowed to play five spring games, but are not allowed to fly to compete. The Blue Devils faced some tough competition in the spring, squaring off with ACC foes North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech in addition to Florida, Elon and UNC Greensboro.
“It’s either you swim or you sink. We threw both [goalkeepers] in the pool,” Church said. “We’re lucky to be in an area where there’s such great soccer all around us. We knew we had to get our goalkeepers as many quality games as we possibly could, and they both performed really well.”
Kershner and Thomas entered spring practice and summer training both jockeying for position as Campbell’s successor. Both players have shown marked improvement under their new goalkeeper coach Steve Springthorpe.
Duke hired Springthorpe as an assistant coach in February, and after spending four years as the head coach at N.C. State, he stepped right in to the spring training, having an immediate impact on the goalkeeping duo.
“At a time where we were transitioning, we got this new coach who had never seen us before, so it was like a fresh start,” Kershner said. “When he came here in the spring, he pushed us more than we had ever been pushed before. He gave us the confidence that we were good enough to replace Tara.”
Church opted to rotate his goalkeepers at the beginning of the year, but Kershner has carried the bulk of the workload of late. He said Kershner has become more of a leader as her comfort level in net has increased.
“Your goalkeeper is always a leader, no matter what year she is,” Church said. “She’s always a leader because of the position she plays. I’ve seen confidence in her, especially after she makes that first save, you see a real presence come about her.”
Case in point—Kershner’s penalty kick save late in the first half against Miami energized a Duke team that had struggled to score all season long. The Blue Devils came out of the locker room and tallied three goals in the second half.
“We really dominated that game, but we hadn’t scored a goal,” Church said. “All the momentum could’ve switched if they’d scored that goal. It was a huge save.”
Springthorpe’s focus on footwork, tactical strategy and film study has paid off for the Palo Alto, Calif. native.
“She’s a good shot-blocker... [and] at practice and in the games we’ve played, she hasn’t been giving up a lot of rebounds,” said Springthorpe. “She’s pretty good at 5-foot-10 at reading the ball in the air and coming out and challenging. She can also strike a long ball for us, which allows us to relieve some pressure late in the game.”
As Duke continues to face highly-ranked opponents in ACC play, Kershner said the experience playing quality teams in the spring and the non-conference portion of the Blue Devils' schedule has helped accelerate the learning process.
“When you play in the ACC, you’re playing the best teams in the country every weekend,” Kershner said. “Playing a tough non-conference [schedule] is essential because we’re playing games that we have to win by one goal, and that translates directly to the ACC because there aren’t going to be any blowouts.”