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Duke women's soccer heads to UNC Nike Classic to open season

<p>Junior captain Christina Gibbons will return to the back line for the Blue Devils as they kick off their season against Fresno State in the UNC Nike Classic.</p>

Junior captain Christina Gibbons will return to the back line for the Blue Devils as they kick off their season against Fresno State in the UNC Nike Classic.

With just a few tinkers to last year’s starting lineup and a deeper bench, Duke starts its season in the UNC Nike Classic for the third straight year.

After defeating No. 22 Clemson 1-0 at Koskinen Stadium in an exhibition game Saturday, head coach Robbie Church’s team begins the 2015 season battling Fresno State Friday at 5 p.m. at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill.

The contest marks the first time ever that Duke will take on the Bulldogs and the first of 10 games the Blue Devils will play before starting their ACC campaign against Florida State Sept. 20.

“Our goal for this weekend is to win that tournament,” Church said. “We want to progress, we want to be better at the end of the tournament than we were going into it, and to prepare for the following weekend.”

Six freshmen—who made their first appearances in a Duke uniform against the Tigers Saturday—will have the opportunity to continue seeing minutes against Fresno State. Among them, midfielder Taylor Racioppi—who was ranked as the No. 2 player in her class—stole the spotlight as she led the Blue Devil attack with four shots in 64 minutes.

Even though Racioppi did not find the back of the net, she could have scored her first Duke goal on at least two separate occasions. Her strikes, however, went too wide when she was clean through on goal.

Racioppi said the team has been very welcoming with her and the other freshmen and that the Blue Devils are looking to repeat their solid performance against Clemson.

“We like to focus on ourselves a lot,” Racioppi said. “We think that it’s really important that if we can know how we’re going to play and do it well, we should be fine against any team. Of course, we’ll do a scouting report, but the focus is on us for every game.”

Midfielder Cassie Pecht—who was named the ACC Rookie of the Year and received All-ACC Freshman Team honors in 2012—missed the 2013 and 2014 seasons due to a knee injury. The redshirt sophomore returned to action Saturday and played 57 minutes.

Church praised Pecht’s mental toughness as she fought her injuries despite a few relapses, and also remarked how great the help from the team’s physical therapists was during the course of her recuperation.

“It’s been unfair that she hasn’t been able to play,” Church said. “But she’s never wavered or blamed anybody and just came back to work. Now she’s back and playing at a very high level.”

Thanks to Pecht’s versatility, fast change-of-pace ability and standout ball control, Church hopes to have plenty of options in the attacking third of the field and increase his team’s number of offensive threats this season.

Last year, midfielder Toni Payne frequently led Duke’s attacking plays after receiving a pass from the defenders or when a forced turnover allowed the Blue Devils to start a counter-attack. But when rivals blocked her connection with the forwards, the team wasn’t able to generate different looks or create goal attempts.

But as Pecht will look to attack the left side of the field this fall, opponents will usually have to shadow Payne on the right, Racioppi in the middle and the 2012 Rookie of the Year on the left. These multiple offensive threats should facilitate finding openings in the rival defenses—which the team already got a taste of in the exhibition game against Clemson.

Another change in the starting lineup this year is captain Christina Gibbons’ position on the pitch. The Raleigh, N.C., native played 16 games last season, most of them as a left midfielder due to the abundance of injuries among her teammates. This time around, Gibbons will play on the left flank again—but as a defender, her natural position.

“Christina brings a voice [to the defense,]” Church said. “She’s very comfortable about being a leader on the field and talking and communicating. It’s hard sometimes for some players to play and talk and lead other players but Christina does it very well.”

After taking on Fresno State Friday, the Blue Devils will face Weber State in their second game of the UNC Nike Classic Sunday at 11 a.m. in Chapel Hill.

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