Last year, solving a World Master-level Sudoku may have been easier than finding a starting lineup for head coach Robbie Church.
Due to a rash of injuries, Church had to come up with a formation full of talented but inexperienced underclassmen and players in positions they were relatively unfamiliar with.
This year, thanks to the recovery of a few Blue Devils and the addition of six freshmen, putting together a group of 11 starters will be like solving a Sudoku again. This time, however, it will hopefully be a fun one to solve.
“When we had some of our best seasons, we were able to play 17, 18 players,” Church said. “College soccer is a different animal than any other soccer leagues that are out there. Nobody else in the world will play Fridays-Sundays. You play in less than 48 hours, which is crazy in recovering. You’ve got to have lots of people typically on the bench on Fridays and playing on Sundays because of the lack of recovery time.”
There is no doubt about who the starting goalie will be for No. 21 Duke this season.
Redshirt senior Ali Kershner graduated in the spring, so sophomore EJ Proctor—who played in 12 games last year—will be in charge of turning away shots from opponents.
Although redshirt freshman Abby Pyne made her first appearance in a Duke uniform in the 1-0 preseason victory against then-No. 22 Clemson Aug. 15—where she saw nearly 20 minutes and delivered one save—the Dixmont, Maine, native has no ACC experience and is still dealing with the knee injuries that kept her sidelined last season.
“[Competitiveness] is good for both of us because we’re very different, so we push each other in categories in which one is stronger than the other and vice versa,” Proctor said. “[Payne] is definitely my biggest supporter and I’m the same way for her. It’s a good relationship.”
Defensively, Church prefers a traditional four-player block. All the Duke defenders saw minutes last fall—but only one of them returns to the position she occupied in 2014.
In her first year as a Blue Devil, sophomore Morgan Reid averaged 77.0 minutes in 18 games occupying the right flank, where she will look to continue imposing her toughness when facing rival attackers this season. Another sophomore, Schuyler DeBree, returns to the defending third of the field, but the Fair Haven, N.J., native will be a center back instead of a left defender—a position where she delivered solid performances last year.
5-foot-9 center back Rebecca Quinn—who captured the bronze medal with the Canadian women’s national team in the Pan American Games this summer—will accompany DeBree in the back zone and should bring international experience to the defense.
Junior captain Christina Gibbons played in the midfield last season—substituting for injured midfielder Cassie Pecht. But this year, “Gibby”—as her teammates call the Raleigh, N.C. native—will return to her natural position of left defender, where she can offer all her leadership and fighting spirit.
“[Gibbons] is one of the leaders of the back line,” Proctor said. “She’ll call when to drop or how far to drop, or when to step and when to hold. And she’s really good at getting forward wide so she brings a lot to the defense.”
Junior Lizzy Raben, redshirt junior Sammie Thomas and freshman Mary Love Taylor are three defenders that will see important minutes, providing valuable depth for Church.
The midfield is where the Sudoku gets complicated, as the team has an abundance of players for just three or four positions.
Church counts senior Kara Wilson, redshirt junior Danielle Duhl and redshirt sophomore Malinda Allen as defensive figures. Four Blue Devils then can play in the No. 5 position—the anchor that connects the defense with the midfield and controls rival counter-attacks.
If he decides to play a 4-3-3 formation, the two other starting midfielders will be Pecht—who earned National Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 thanks to her 15 assists and six goals—and sophomore Ashton Miller, who averaged 61.7 minutes in 18 games last year.
Although it seems clear who the starting forwards will be, Church has plenty of options.
Junior Toni Payne, a midfielder from Birmingham, Ala., who has poured in 10 goals and fed her teammates 10 times in her two years at Duke, and sophomore Imani Dorsey can exchange their positions as wingers.
Last season, Payne started every attacking play for the Blue Devils. But if the opponents blocked her connection with the attackers, Duke was not able to create different looks. This inability reduced the team’s scoring ability—especiallydown the stretch when the squad scored only five goals in seven games.
As a center forward, freshman Taylor Racioppi has all the skills to be a part of the starting lineup this campaign and will look to boost Duke’s firepower. The talented newcomer—rated as the No. 2 midfielder in her class—scored three goals in her first two games last weekend, joining her teammate Kayla McCoy and former Blue Devils Kelly Cobb, Casey McCluskey, Andi Melde, Caitlin Connolly and Dena Paris as the only Duke players to accomplish that.
McCoy—ranked No. 3 in the freshmen class—can be the secret weapon for Church, as the freshman from Lincolnwood, Ill, can fire potent shots from outside the box but also has a great crossing technique.
Junior Krysia Sikora and sophomore Casey Martinez will probably come off the bench frequently, but their quickness and excellent ball control can provide punch from the reserves when the starters are not having a good day.
Another variation Church is considering is a 4-2-2 formation. If the team needs more defensive balance, Church can go with four instead of three in the back line—either adding another defensive player or asking Racioppi to join the attacking midfielders.
“[Abundance of players] is a good problem to have,” Church said. “I rather abundance of players than a lack of players. People will get to play in time. Some people might have to sacrifice some things for the team but we’ll figure that out.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.