As a program, Duke women’s soccer waited a long time for last weekend. Not since 1992 had the Blue Devils reached the season’s final game.
The heartbreak of a 1-0 loss to Stanford in the national championship game will continue to sting, but now this team has seen it all. Going into next year, Duke now knows what it takes to win a conference championship and make it to that last game. With all 11 starters returning from this year’s runner-up finish, 2012 will mark the Blue Devils’ coronation as an elite Division I program—if it finishes the season with a victory.
It will certainly not be an easy feat, as the Cardinal can attest after falling in the title game the past two years. But Duke’s returning experience and elite depth give it the pieces to return to the College Cup final.
Defensively, it will be difficult to improve on a stellar 2011 campaign. The Blue Devils achieved a preseason goal to set the school record for shutouts in a season, with 16. The core of the back line—Erin Koballa, Maddie Haller and Libby Jandl, along with goalkeeper Tara Campbell—has been together for three full seasons now after being thrown into the fire together as freshmen. Sophomores Natasha Anasi—the 2011 ACC defensive player of the year—and Alex Straton have also been tremendous additions to one of the most athletic back lines in the country.
Should redshirt junior Ashley Rape choose to return for her final year of eligibility following her third career knee surgery, the combination of talent, athleticism and experience among the defensive unit could be the best in the nation.
Perhaps all that defensive talent can take a page out of Stanford’s playbook as Duke pursues a title next year. The Cardinal allowed a mere nine goals this season—and only one after the start of November.
The biggest step the Blue Devils need to take is to maintain consistency on the attack. After getting off to a hot start this year, Duke was plagued by stretches of ineffectiveness during the latter portion of the ACC schedule and into the postseason, scoring on less than 10 percent of its shots during that period. While this could be expected of a team starting almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores on the front line and in the midfield, there was no lack of opportunities on goal, as the Blue Devils averaged nearly 18 shots per game.
Those averages may sound impressive, but considering the volatility in Duke’s scoring output and the limited number of chances deep in tournament play, the squad will need to convert under pressure to return as one of the nation’s elite. The Blue Devils have the necessary talent, as they boast some of the most creative young players in the country, featuring forwards Mollie Pathman and Kelly Cobb, along with midfielder Kaitlyn Kerr. For the most part, the offensive inconsistencies down the stretch correlated with opposing teams placing their defensive focus on Cobb, one of the nation’s premier freshmen.
Kerr managed to pick up the slack and carry the scoring load in the postseason, but Duke will need to find balance offensively to relieve the pressure on Cobb and create high quality chances. Not unlike opening up the floor for a great shooter in basketball, developing complementary scorers limits an opponent’s ability to focus on one player, and gives coaches more options to create schemes that open up opportunities for Cobb—resulting in more high quality chances for the team’s best offensive threat.
The pressures Duke felt at the end of the season, especially in the losses to Stanford and to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament can be alleviated by more consistent play in the first half as well. The Blue Devils often seemed more cautious in the first half before taking on an aggressor’s mentality in the second half of games. With more potent play from the opening whistle, it will be harder for teams to sit back and double team players like Cobb or Kerr, which should open the field for more quality opportunities.
While Duke will lose some of its speed with the losses of Chelsea Canepa and Molly Lester, the squad has tremendous depth up front among freshmen and sophomores. Head coach Robbie Church has built a program that looks to be fit for success for the next several years, with multiple players that earned significant minutes this year at every position.
That experience should translate into another step forward for the program. With the experiences of this year behind them plus another full spring together, the Blue Devils should be in for a special season in 2012.
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