The Blue Devils have finally found their stride offensively—and at the perfect time, too.
After traveling to Chapel Hill two weeks ago to open its season at the UNC Nike Classic, Duke will host its own Nike Classic at Koskinen Stadium this weekend. Friday's games start with No. 14 North Carolina taking on No. 7 Penn State at 5 p.m., followed by No. 22 Duke against Arkansas at 7:30 p.m. The action will continue at Koskinen Stadium Sunday, with the first matchup between North Carolina and Arkansas set for noon and kickoff for the Duke-Penn State match set for 2:30 p.m.
“This is a huge weekend,” head coach Robbie Church said. “We only have two more nonconference weekends, so you need to string some wins together because the ACC is so tough and every win is so precious, but our nonconference [schedule] this year is almost like ACC games basically…. We’ve got a really loaded field again at the Duke Nike Classic and it’s really become a tradition to have that.”
Duke (2-2) opened up the season with two tough losses to Ohio State and Stanford at the UNC Nike Classic. In those games, the Blue Devils were not able to find the back of the net and gave up a total of three goals to the Buckeyes and the Cardinal.
The team was able to recover quickly, as it pulled off a strong 2-0 victory against then-No. 13 West Virginia on the road, followed by a decisive 3-1 win against UAB in its home opener last Sunday. Now with their attention focused back on playing top competition, the Blue Devils will have to continue the torrid scoring streak they have been on.
Duke will play its opening match against an Arkansas team that has a very different style of play than the Blue Devil’s possession-oriented approach. The Razorbacks (3-0-1) feature a physical attack that focuses on set plays—such as long thrown-ins and corner kicks—which they use to their advantage.
On the other hand, Penn State (3-0-0) plays a very similar style to Duke, according to Church. The Nittany Lions prefer to play with the ball on the ground, connecting series of passes and making runs based on tactical play. Facing off against two teams in three days that are so different can make preparation during the week difficult, but Church was not discouraged.
“It’s nice to have Arkansas first who’s completely different from us,” Church said. “Penn State on the back end is more like us. So it becomes a little easier in that if we had one day of preparation for Arkansas it would be really difficult.”
Sophomore Toni Payne—reigning ACC Player of the Week—has been on fire of late and will continue to be a key component in Duke’s offense this weekend. The midfielder from Birmingham, Al., registered two goals and an assist in her last two games and was a huge spark for the Blue Devil offense in both contests.
“Toni’s a very talented player,” Church said. “What we need her to continue to do is build on last week which was probably the best I’ve ever seen her in a Duke uniform…. She can beat anybody out there on the dribble and in a one-v-one. Early in the year she was a taking a few too many touches and going backwards and sideways and this week she started going right at people and trying to break them down."
Senior forward Kelly Cobb will look to add to that spark, as she scored the opening goal against UAB less than seven minutes into the match. Cobb will look to sustain the success in hopes of repeating her stellar freshman campaign in which she notched 11 goals for the Blue Devils.
"Kelly’s done everything right," Church said. "She runs hard, she’s training hard, she’s passing the ball better, she’s done everything except scoring goals so for her to get the first one was big.”
As Church admitted, this team is still getting better and improving with every practice and every game that it plays. By the end of this weekend, the squad may well be on its way toward its ultimate goal of winning a national title. But it will have to go through two tough competitors first.