After soccer took him to Spain, Sweden and Brazil this summer, Sean Davis returns home to lead his young squad in his last season.
Entering his second campaign as captain and bolstered by his recent selection to Top Drawer Soccer’s Division I Best XI for his performance in the midfield, Davis looks to ride preseason momentum to the top of the ACC standings.
Although many student athletes are obligated to stay on campus or take classes over the summer, Davis used his final summer in college to focus on soccer. He traveled to Europe to practice with teams in Spain and Sweden, then capped off the summer with a National Premier League Soccer Championship with the New York Red Bulls' U-23 squad. Davis also traveled to Brazil with other members of the Duke team to watch some of the FIFA World Cup.
“This summer I fully committed to soccer. Other summers I had to take classes," Davis said. "I tried to play my best all the time, and opportunities fell into my lap. That was just an incredible experience to be around professionals, let alone legends like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. I couldn’t have asked for a better summer.”
Davis was the second-highest scoring player on the 2013 Blue Devil squad, won All-ACC second team honors and was voted offensive MVP by his teammates. Expectations for Davis are even higher this year after he was recently named to the College Soccer News All-America Third Team in addition to his Top Drawer Soccer honor.
After two disappointing seasons in which the Blue Devils lost in the first round of the ACC tournament and failed to qualify for the NCAA postseason, head coach John Kerr took a gamble this year in recruiting 13 freshmen. The addition has posed a unique challenge to Davis, as he must successfully orient and incorporate the new players while capitalizing on the opportunity for fast improvement.
“We knew going into the summer that this was one of the biggest challenges facing us—almost half the team [is freshmen],” Davis said. “The coaches have done such a great job of bringing on great kids with great attitudes. Me and the rest of the captains have kept in touch with the freshmen over the summer to make sure that they’re prepared. Right from the first time we had practice, I could tell that they were special.”
The 2013 Duke squad totaled eight ties, almost matching their total number of wins. In addition to the influx of new talent, Kerr organized a new formation in order to promote offensive output in tight games. The Blue Devils now use three backs and five midfielders—instead of the usual four and four—and use their wings to create space on the field.
“We try to get the ball out as wide as we can—we get our guys pretty high up on the line,” junior captain Zach Mathers said. “When that can’t happen, we go through [Davis] as much as we can, and our wide guys open up, which creates a lot of movement. The last two years have been pretty disappointing. I think this year we have a great chance of being one of the top teams in the ACC and making a far run in the NCAA tournament.”
So far, it looks like the changes have paid off. The Blue Devils swept preseason games against College of Charleston, Radford and Old Dominion—a feat not achieved since 2003. The three games showcased a remarkably different squad and style of play from last year: the once-sickly Duke offense outscored their opponents by a 12-3 margin.
“We’ve gotten off to some pretty slow starts,” Mathers said. “I think being 3-0 in the preseason has given us an awesome amount of confidence going forward. Last year we didn’t have the offensive weapons we needed. With this new formation it allows our attacking guys to really move forward and be dangerous. You can tell by the goals we’ve already scored this season. It’s been awesome to see our offense explode.”
As a member of the 2011 squad that made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, Davis knows some of the differences between a successful and a stagnant offense, and he hopes his experience will keep the 2014 squad firing through the regular season.
Through the many transitions he’s faced as a player, Davis is grateful for the experiences he’s had as student athlete and is hopeful for the upcoming season.
“Personally, I’ve become a much more well-rounded person [since coming to Duke]," Davis said. “I’ve exposed myself to great opportunities that Duke has to offer. On the field, I’ve been able to take my game to the next level. I really can’t complain about anything, and I’m really just looking forward to this senior season. I think we have all the tools, we just have to go out there and perform."