Midfielder Gilda Doria returned to the pitch last weekend after missing the entirety of last season with a knee injury, but her leadership remains a steadying presence for the Blue Devils.
Brianna Siracuse / The Chronicle
Midfielder Gilda Doria returned to the pitch last weekend after missing the entirety of last season with a knee injury, but her leadership remains a steadying presence for the Blue Devils.

Long before they set foot on East Campus together, Duke’s highly touted freshman class did something else as a group.

Responding to a request from captain Gilda Doria, a redshirt senior who sat out all of the 2013 season recovering from a torn right ACL, the eight Blue Devil newcomers changed their phone backgrounds to the logo for the 2014 College Cup in Boca Raton, Fla.

“She showed us that Final Four picture with Boca Raton and was like ‘We want to be there,’" freshman forward Imani Dorsey said. “Why not go out and especially give it to the seniors because they deserve it?”

As a sophomore, Doria started 23 games in the midfield and scored the game-winning goal—and her only one of the season—against Long Beach State to send her team into the 2011 College Cup, college soccer’s version of basketball’s Final Four.

After falling in the quarterfinal game the following year, Doria and her fellow seniors were hungry to make one last deep run in 2013 when she tore her ACL in the spring. Now, Doria is without classmates Mollie Pathman, Kim DeCesare and Natasha Anasi, who are playing professionally around the globe, as well as Laura Weinberg and Kaitlyn Kerr, two five-goal scorers last year.

Although the cast around her has changed, the desire remains the same, and she has made sure it’s on the agenda far before the first game.

“She was one of the first people that reached out to us freshmen,” defender Morgan Reid said. “I’m sure the other girls as well as me were a little intimidated to begin with because she was so intense from the get-go and we were still in high school and she was talking about this upcoming fall, and we were like, ‘We’re not even there yet.’ Once we got to know her and actually meet her in person, we realized she’s just so invested in this team.”

Having spent the summer with her club coach Scott Baker, now the men’s soccer head coach at Rowan, Doria sought to establish some of the invaluable bonds that helped her class become so close.

“My coach that I was staying with over the summer from my club team [Scott Baker]… he thinks that relationships drive results, and that’s what I tried to do early on in the summer, just reach out just if they had any questions,” Doria said. “We really want this team to be a family.”

Doria’s efforts have proved extremely important in light of the injuries and roster adjustments the Blue Devils have already faced less than a week into the regular season.

In preseason practices, Doria suffered a pulled hamstring that kept her out until last Tuesday, sophomore Malinda Allen went down with an undisclosed ailment, and the program announced that redshirt sophomore Cassie Pecht would be undergoing season-ending knee surgery for the second straight year. Additionally, Duke practiced without sophomores Christina Gibbons and Rebecca Quinn, who had been representing the U.S. and Canada in the U20 World Cup, until last Tuesday as well.

“We’re still looking a little bit,” head coach Robbie Church said. “We’re still searching for who are we and what’s going to be our strengths, especially with getting Christina and Rebecca [and Gilda back just last week].”

With so many different personnel changes, the Blue Devils’ veterans have played a major role in helping TopDrawerSoccer.com’s third-ranked recruiting class.

“We’ve definitely become closer, and we’re starting to learn each others’ tendencies on the field, each others’ personalities. The older girls were so welcoming in the beginning so it wasn’t hard to let loose and be yourself around them,” Dorsey said.

Doria has not been the only leader making a big impact on the young team. Dorsey said she has looked to senior Kelly Cobb as role model on the front line and admires her instinct to take on defenders, and redshirt junior forward Audrey Gibson has been a valuable mentor and locker neighbor to freshman midfielder Casey Martinez, who started in the opener after scoring a goal off the bench in preseason, and Duke’s six sophomores, who combined to start 89 games last year, have set up a buddy system with each of the freshmen.

It also helps that the group knew each other so well heading in to Duke. Dorsey and Martinez played on the same club team. Goalkeeper Abby Pyne and defender Schuyler DeBree played in the same region as Dorsey and Martinez, and Dorsey and Martinez’s commitment played a large role in DeBree’s decision, she said.

“The freshmen all came in together to see the rest of the team and I think if we didn’t know each other as well, we would have felt a lot more alone,” Dorsey said. “But you never feel alone here…. Now, getting to know the team even more, I have 30 older sisters basically.”

Despite Doria and her teammates’ efforts to integrate the freshmen, the Blue Devils have dropped their first two contests for the first time since 1999. They lost 1-0 Friday to an Ohio State team that had beaten No. 14 Wake Forest in exhibition play and 2-0 to No. 6 Stanford Sunday.

Gibbons and Quinn gradually worked their way into the lineup, starting Sunday, and Doria came off the bench in both contests, but Duke did not manage to put together a sequence to finally find the back of the net.

“I’m a little more anxious than I’ve been in probably three or for years, which is kind of a fun anxious a little bit too because you just don’t know,” Church said. “You kind of knew what was there with our veteran groups, and you knew what they were most of the time going to do. And I say most of the time. But with a new group and the transition with it, it’s been fun though. These are really really good kids and a talented group.”

Church knows from his experience last year of shuffling five freshmen into the starting lineup and working with injuries to three of his top midfielders that uncertainty in the lineup can make for "a little bit of a roller coaster."

After the team's loss to Stanford Sunday in the Blue Devils' first match with the Cardinal since the 2011 final, Doria emphasized that the squad's inexperience should not be an excuse.

But she also insisted that the losses to two top-tier opponents provide just the opportunity to play well in the long run, bringing that perspective to keep the team learning in hopes of turning a squad loaded with potential into a title contender.

"We've got a long ways to go," Church said. "We want to take it one game at a time and get better at this point, but... this program will always have the goal of playing for the national championship. There’s a lot of steps that have to go in between but just to have a player step forward and say 'This is my last year, my last go-around, I’m going to do everything I can to get us to a national championship game, that’s good.'"