Despite the chilly temperatures at Koskinen Stadium Thursday night, Duke was able to keep its hot streak going.
Behind a second-half goal from redshirt senior Kim DeCesare, the Blue Devils defeated N.C. State 1-0, earning their third win in the past four games. The victory moved Duke (7-6-4, 4-4-3 in the ACC) one win closer to qualifying for postseason eligibility with two games remaining in the regular season.
“I think we’re playing our best soccer, and this is the right time of year to be playing your best soccer,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “We got a crucial three points tonight. One point wouldn’t have helped us.”
Facing the ACC’s most porous defense—the Wolfpack had allowed 34 goals in 17 matches this year—the Blue Devils came away empty after the first 45 minutes. The drought wasn’t due to a shortage of opportunities, though. Duke held possession for the vast majority of the opening half, and generated nine first-half shot attempts, including four by senior forward Laura Weinberg.
Wolfpack goalie Mackenzie Stelljes had to be on top of her game to stop the relentless Duke attack. The redshirt freshman left her feet time after time in the first half, tallying three saves to preserve the scoreless tie. At the other end of the pitch, Duke goalie Meghan Thomas went nearly unchallenged, as N.C. State (6-12-0, 1-11-0) rarely ventured into the 18-yard box.
Although the Blue Devils had plenty of looks, Church said the execution in the final third of the field left something to be desired.
“We had some really great flashes, I thought we moved the ball well, but we took too many touches in the first half and we settled for a lot of shots,” Church said. “In the second half we got a lot lower and came from the outside in a lot more. We only got one goal for it but there were a lot better opportunities.”
The Wolfpack—who were shut out for the fifth time in six games—were without the services of their top goal-scorer, Jackie Stengel. The freshman forward had tallied nine goals on the season, but was inactive Thursday. Without her presence, N.C. State appeared content to chip the ball into Duke territory and did not register a shot on goal until the 50th minute.
On consecutive possessions, Duke seemed destined to finish a goal, but both times fell just short. Senior Kaitlyn Kerr fed freshman Toni Payne down the left side, and Payne dribbled parallel to the goal, setting up DeCesare with a shot only to have the pass intercepted and cleared.
The Blue Devils came up just short again midway through the second period. Payne got around her defender, and fired a shot that bounced off the left post and harmlessly out of bounds.
Church said the Wolfpack played a slightly different formation than what Duke had prepared for, but the necessary adjustment was not a difficult one.
“They clogged the middle of the field, and once we started playing around them, we moved the ball pretty well,” Church said.
Still scoreless, it was suddenly Duke’s turn to hold its breath. Some sloppy play in the backfield suddenly gave the Wolfpack the ball deep on the Blue Devil side of the field. The initial shot misfired, but N.C. State wasn’t done. A header came at Thomas from close range, but the Castle Rock, Colo., product was able to corral the shot.
Duke finally broke through in the 69th minute. Kerr volleyed a ball over the Wolfpack defense to DeCesare, who barely avoided being whistled for offsides. Stelljes came out to defend, but the Massapequa, N.Y., native was able to sneak the ball to the right of the goalie to give Duke the 1-0 advantage.
“It was a nice little combination play. The ball was chipped over to her and she timed her run well,” Church said. “She did a nice composure job of finishing.”
Entering Thursday, Duke needed two wins in its final three contests to keep postseason dreams alive, but DeCesare said the team hasn’t felt the pressure, even when it doesn’t score early.
“There’s pressure to win every game,” DeCesare said. “We’re familiar with the opponent, so it wasn’t as nerve-wracking, and we did the same routine, same thing in the locker room, same warm-up, so we were ready to go.”
With last-place Pittsburgh on the docket Sunday afternoon, the Blue Devils could clinch an above-.500 record – the necessary record for eligibility – before heading to Chapel Hill Halloween night to face No. 3 North Carolina. A win against the Panthers could also help the Blue Devils make a late-season push into the eight-team ACC Tournament.
"We have to submit a resume to the NCAA and we want to give them as good a resume as possible,” Church said. “If we do qualify for the ACC Tournament, it’ll be against another highly ranked team, which is great because it gives you another quality opponent.”