After a disappointing 8-9-1 finish last season, Duke was left out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. But with nine starters among the 19 returning players and the addition of the sixth best recruiting class in the nation, the Blue Devils are determined to burst back into the postseason.
Duke will see an actual ACC opponent in its lone exhibition matchup this preseason, a 6 p.m. contest against Clemson Saturday at Koskinen Stadium. The Blue Devils and Tigers are not slated to play one another as part of the conference schedule this year, giving head coach Robbie Church an opportunity to test his team against a high-caliber ACC opponent right away.
“It’s going to be a great test for us. We’re not nearly ready, but we've got to play, which is great,” Church said.
Duke practiced for four days in Durham last week before venturing to the North Carolina mountains for continued training and team bonding. A tradition every season for Church's squad, the destination of the bonding trip alternates every season between the mountains and the beach.
The team stayed in Montreat, N.C., this week and held practice at the Asheville Football Club, enjoying some white-water rafting as a team Wednesday before heading back to campus.
“I think that this trip in particular was really successful from a bonding standpoint. White-water rafting together was awesome but also just hanging out…and really getting to know each other was super beneficial,” junior captain Christina Gibbons said. “I think that we ultimately got closer and that was what we wanted to do, so everyone is really excited now to be able to play together.”
The bonding trip also included team meals and individual meetings with the coaching staff for each freshman. The nation's sixth-ranked recruiting class includes Taylor Racioppi, who has racked up preseason and high school honors. The midfielder was tabbed the second-ranked overall player in the Class of 2015 and was named to TopDrawerSoccer.com’s preseason All-Freshman Team this week.
Racioppi is joined by the No. 3 overall player in the recruiting class, forward Kayla McCoy, as well as Chelsea Burns, Kat McDonald, Mary Love Taylor and Anna Munro.
“I think [the freshmen] all feel so welcomed by the returning players,” Church said. “The freshmen are very comfortable in this environment right now, which is a really important thing.”
Another new face for the Blue Devils will not be in a player’s uniform. Entering his 15th season at the helm, Church added assistant Brandon Gwin to his staff this offseason as the goalkeeper coach to replace Chris White, who accepted the head coaching position at Chowan University. Gwin was in charge of the goalkeepers and defense at Rice the past two seasons, helping guide the Owls to an NCAA tournament appearance in 2014.
Along with the additions of the strong freshman class and Gwin, Duke will also get the highly anticipated return to the field of midfielder Cassie Pecht. The redshirt junior was the 2012 National Freshman of the Year before a knee injury forced her to miss the past two seasons. Redshirt sophomore defender Malinda Allen—who saw playing time as a true freshman in 2013—and redshirt freshman goalkeeper Abby Pyne will also return from injury to bolster the Blue Devil lineup. Pyne missed both her freshman year and final high school season with a knee injury.
“You’ve sat there and watched them for a year, or in Cassie Pecht’s case, two years not being on the field,” Church said. “You’ve watched how diligent they’ve been in trying to get back to help their teammates and really become a main part of things. To have them back on the field this year has been really great.”
The freshmen and now-healthy players add to a strong core of nine returning starters, including five of the team’s top six scorers from 2014. Forward Toni Payne— now a junior—posted seven goals and five assists last season as the team's leading scorer, and Gibbons added three goals and three assists of her own.
With proven players in Pecht and Allen rejoining the lineup and a strong recruiting class coming in, Church said he was encouraged by the competition that his team will see going against each other every day.
“This is more depth than we’ve had in the past two years…. It’s helped us in practice. We’re practicing against good players,” Church said. “Our first group will be training and playing against really quality players that will make it like ACC play. That’s exciting—that helps the development of our program.”
Church will use Saturday's exhibition to highlight the areas his team will focus on in practice next week before its regular season debut at the UNC Nike Classic Aug. 21. Clemson—a team that made an NCAA tournament appearance last season—is a talented program against which to test the concepts the team has already worked on.
Gibbons said the Blue Devil upperclassmen have tried to engineer a culture change, making sure to put a focus on bonding and having fun playing the game, a sentiment echoed by their coach.
“The focus of this team has been outstanding, the enthusiasm of this team has been outstanding. The commitment of the team has been very, very good," Church said. “I’m very excited about this team."
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