In 2009, Duke started five freshmen on a squad that finished the season 8-9-4 and was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Two years later, those players—goalkeeper Tara Campbell, midfielder Nicole Lipp and defenders Maddy Haller, Libby Jandl and Erin Koballa—led the Blue Devils to the national championship match.
The Blue Devils entered the 2013 campaign with lofty aspirations but have struggled to match the production of the last two years. This season, however, could pave the way for another title run down the line. Five freshmen have seen significant playing time for Duke this fall, as head coach Robbie Church has opted to forge a starting lineup comprised largely of veteran leadership and young talent.
Reliance on fresh faces has been a matter of necessity for Duke (4-6-3, 1-4-2 in the ACC). Three of four defenders from last year’s team graduated, and season-ending injuries to Cassie Pecht and Gilda Doria left large cleats to fill at midfield. Church has inserted freshmen Christina Gibbons, Lizzy Raben and Malinda Allen into the back line and has filled the holes at midfield with classmates Toni Payne and Rebecca Quinn.
“A lot of the time, we’ve been on the field with four freshmen, and that’s tough in this league,” Church said. “[In the ACC,] you don’t learn until you see it and you experience it. Unfortunately we haven’t been scoring on the offensive end, so every game is tight, and if you make a mistake somewhere, it’s tough.”
Gibbons and Raben are two of four Blue Devil players to have started each of Duke’s 13 games this season. Gibbons leads the team with 1,227 minutes played this season, and Raben and Payne have also surpassed the 1,000-minute mark.
The learning curve has been steep—the Blue Devils have faced six opponents currently ranked in the top 10 and will face two more ranked teams, Notre Dame and Maryland, in two of their next three games. But the freshmen had an idea of what to expect after training and practicing with a team filled with talented upperclassmen.
“Playing in practice helped me to adjust for the game situations,” Allen said. “We have so many great players that our practice intensity is pretty close to game intensity.”
Church said that a lot of material has been thrown at the freshmen quickly and probably has yet to fully sink in.
“Speed of play and the physicality [are the biggest adjustments to the college game],” Church said. “It happens so quickly, and you don’t have a lot of time to react. Right now, they’re thinking too much, but next year they’ll be reacting—they’ve seen that before, and then they go do it.”
Each of the freshmen offers a unique skill. At 5-foot-3, Payne’s speed and athleticism has created nightmares for opponents trying to slow her attack, and Allen’s 6-foot frame gives her a distinct advantage in winning and directing headers. Raben has been moved out of position from center back to right back, and has relied on her athleticism to make the transition. Gibbons is a gritty competitor with the ability to both attack and defend.
“[Gibbons] is a bit of an old-school kid. She rolls up her sleeves and you know what you’re going to get every time she steps on the field,” Church said. “She’s had a great year, one of the tops of anybody on our team.”
Quinn, a product of Toronto, recently returned to the pitch after a battle with plantar fasciitis. She made the assist on Duke’s lone goal at Boston College in 40 minutes of limited action, playing her first game since Sept. 1. Church said he hopes that Quinn will not face any minute restrictions this weekend at Maryland.
The upperclassmen have played a key role in turning the fresh faces into a vocal unit with leadership potential. Inspirational notes from Doria, one-on-one workouts with Kim DeCesare and unwavering support have helped the freshmen acclimate to the college game.
“The seniors have given me a lot of confidence,” Gibbons said. “They hold us to a high standard, and they don’t let us get away with things because we’re freshmen.”
The encouragement stems from shared experience. Natasha Anasi, Duke’s senior defensive anchor, switched to the back line at the beginning of her sophomore year, and was mentored by Jandl, Haller and Koballa.
“Natasha knows what it’s like to be a younger player adjusting to playing defense at the college level,” Raben said. “She knows that we’re going to make mistakes, so there’s some mutual understanding.”
Mired in a long winless drought, the Blue Devils could use a spark from their youth to right the ship and head back to the postseason once again. And with the end of their first midterm exams in sight as Church noted, the freshmen are hoping to rejuvenate Duke's on-field play.
“We’ve never had that mid-season slump before,” Gibbons said. “Hopefully we can offer a bit of energy and refreshment.”