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Duke faces tough opening slate

Sophomore Andrew Wenger looks to improve on a ACC Freshman of the Year season, in which he also scored three game-winning goals. and led Duke’s defense.
Sophomore Andrew Wenger looks to improve on a ACC Freshman of the Year season, in which he also scored three game-winning goals. and led Duke’s defense.

Following a tumultuous 2009-10 season, head coach John Kerr has assembled a talented, but very young, Blue Devil team.

And despite its youth, Kerr is so confident in No. 11 Duke that he will throw them right into the fire by starting the season against three top-25 teams, including No. 2 Virginia—the defending national champion—and No. 4 North Carolina.

“The beginning of the season is quite hectic and exciting,” Kerr said. “That is what we are preparing for now.”

This is a different strategy than last year’s, when the team coasted into ACC play by facing easier opponents early in the season. In 2009, the Blue Devils went into the Virginia game undefeated. They upset the Cavaliers last year on their home turf, but fell to rival North Carolina 2-1 September 18. This year, there will be no warm-up for those traditionally tough games.

Duke will face No. 20 Louisville Friday night and plays Sacramento State two days later as part of the annual Duke/Nike Classic. Although the Hornets are not ranked, they reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season and pushed No. 6-seed UCLA to the brink before falling 2-1 in the game’s closing stages.

The daunting opening schedule will be exacerbated by the inexperience of the starting 11, which will be composed of four freshmen and three sophomores.

“We are still a work in progress trying to figure out the best combinations,” Kerr said. “Ideally, we will be playing with four freshmen starting on Friday night and three sophomores. It’s a young team, but we are led by a good group of seniors.”

Although last year’s team stumbled in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments, with first and third-round knockouts, respectively, senior preseason All-American Cole Grossman does not doubt the potential of the young team he is leading.

“We definitely have high expectations and lofty goals,” Grossman said. “We are going to focus on the day-to-day process and feel we can win every game.”

Going into Friday night’s home opener, Kerr has emphasized the role of defense as the building block of a winning season.

“We know that defense wins championships,” Kerr said. “The defense has to be there, and we know that we have the offensive power to create chances.”

Built around sophomore standout Andrew Wenger and senior captain Christian Ibeagha as the center backs, the defense has the experience to lead. Joining the center backs are redshirt senior Matthew Thomas and freshman Will Donovan. Ibeagha trusts his partner in the middle, and all of his teammates on the pitch.

“It’s great because [Wenger] is the kind of player that I know if I make a mistake he’s got my back along with the other players on the field,” Ibeagha said. “We all have each other’s back.”

The defense will provide the foundation for the team, but the offense, led by Grossman and sophomore Ryan Finley, may statistically be more important.

In the 2009-10 season, the Blue Devils posted an outstanding 13-1 record when scoring at least two goals. The team only won one game scoring a single goal, which was the double overtime thriller over Virginia. Conversely, when giving up two goals, Duke was 1-5. Clearly it is difficult to overcome a two-goal deficit, as shown by both Duke and its opponents’ outcomes in those situations.

Despite the statistics, soccer is still a game of teamwork and dedication, two traits that the Blue Devils feel they possess.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that we can take it one practice, one meeting and one film session at a time,” Grossman said. “We try to get better in everything that we do everyday.”

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