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The positive side of dodging flying tortillas

There’s no such thing as a moral victory.

It’s a tired cliché repeated time and time again by coaches and players in every sport at every level. But it’s true, especially in college. At the end of the day, winning is the primary factor in determining whether coaches keep their jobs, and it defines their lasting legacies.

That being said, even though Duke lost 2-0, head coach John Kerr and the men’s soccer team deserve an enormous amount of credit for playing a Friday night game at the University of California-Santa Barbara, the site of this fall’s College Cup,

The Blue Devils’ loss gave them an 0-3 record all-time against the Gauchos, who beat Duke in Koskinen Stadium in 2003 and blew the team out in the 2004 College Cup semifinals, 5-0.

Kerr’s decision to take on Santa Barbara was especially surprising considering the feelings of his predecessor John Rennie, who claimed he never wanted to take on the Gauchos again after the 2004 loss.

“[Rennie] said ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever play UCSB,’” Santa Barbara head coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “We kind of had to wait for Rennie to retire before we ever had a chance to schedule a game with Duke.”

And Rennie never even faced the Gauchos at Harder Stadium, home to the most raucous crowd in NCAA soccer.

Santa Barbara fans routinely pack into the converted football stadium night after night lugging thousands of tortillas with them. Every Gaucho goal brings a cascade of tortillas from the stands. And following the team’s 2006 NCAA championship, students carried the goals over a mile to dump them into the ocean.

Just three weeks ago, 15,896 fans—the largest on-campus crowd in NCAA soccer regular-season history—filled Harder Stadium to see the Gauchos beat then-No. 13 UCLA 2-0.

While “just” 11,242 showed up to see the Blue Devils, it was the biggest crowd Duke had seen all season, almost 4,000 more than the attendance at Maryland, which is considered to have the most rowdy fans in the ACC.

The Santa Barbara crowd was the sixth-largest in NCAA regular season history and was riled up from beginning to end, storming the field after the victory. Losing in front of that crowd to an unranked opponent is a tough price to pay after a 5,000-mile roundtrip at the end of a brutal conference slate, but the game will give the young Blue Devil team more experience than any other regular season game.

For a squad that started the season ranked No. 11 nationally with three freshmen and three sophomore starters, playing elite nonconference opposition will certainly pay major dividends in the coming years, though perhaps not this year. Duke will not face another intense away environment in the regular season, with games against only unranked Clemson and Virginia Tech left on the road docket.

From a national viewpoint, Kerr’s decision to play in Santa Barbara may hurt in the short term. In the eyes of the NSCAA, the organization responsible for the NCAA Division I weekly rankings, the Blue Devils’ loss could be costly. It took UCLA three weeks to regain its No. 13 ranking after its loss at Santa Barbara, and though there are exactly that many weeks left in the regular season, it leaves Duke with no room for error.

But Kerr should still be commended, not criticized, for his bold scheduling. Too often, coaches simply rely on the strength of their conference games to earn a top ranking and gain experience for playoff success. And, if the Blue Devils are to make the College Cup this year, they will likely be the only school involved with an intimate knowledge of the Gaucho fans. With Santa Barbara’s desire to become a more permanent host of the Cup, this game would be meaningful for years to come.

So while there may be no such thing as a moral victory, some losses are more meaningful than others. And this one will help Kerr and his squad as they work toward their goal of winning an NCAA championship.


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