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Duke women's soccer eyes Sweet 16 berth Friday against Florida Gulf Coast

<p>Goalkeeper E.J. Proctor and the Blue Devils can advance to the Sweet 16 with a win Friday against Florida Gulf Coast.</p>

Goalkeeper E.J. Proctor and the Blue Devils can advance to the Sweet 16 with a win Friday against Florida Gulf Coast.

Although the Blue Devils have never faced off against Florida Gulf Coast, head coach Robbie Church is very familiar with Duke’s second-round NCAA tournament opponent.

The third-seeded Blue Devils will travel to Gainesville, Fla. to meet the Eagles Friday at 3 p.m. at Donald R. Dizney Stadium with a spot to the Sweet 16 on the line. The game will  serve as a reunion for the squads’ head coaches—in his lone season at the helm of the men’s soccer team at the College of Boca Raton—now Lynn University—Church coached alongside then women’s head coach Jim Blankenship, who now leads the Eagles’ program.

“[Jim and I have] been really good friends for 25 years,” Church said. “It’s not fun [to coach against him] because I really pull hard for him. He’s done a really good job at [Florida] Gulf Coast, but unfortunately somebody’s not going to advance…. But it will be fun to see him and play against him.”

After eliminating James Madison 5-0 at home last Friday, Duke (11-5-4) will welcome the challenge of a new opponent and a new location. The Eagles—who have played 11 straight games without a loss—and the Blue Devils look very similar on the stat sheet. Both teams have allowed 13 goals thus far this season, with Florida Gulf Coast goalkeeper Brittany Brown posting 10 shutouts to E.J. Proctor’s nine.

The only opponent both faced this year was Miami. Duke edged past the Hurricanes in Coral Gables by a final score of 1-0, but the Eagles—missing three members of their starting lineup—fell 1-0 at home.

“That shows how even of a match it will be Friday,” Proctor said. “I think that’s good to know how close of a game it was with them and Miami, even when they were missing starters.”

Both teams have been impressive all season long on the defensive third, but the offensive side of the ball is not any less imposing. The duo of freshmen Kayla McCoy and Taylor Racioppi have posted 13 goals for the Blue Devils to lead the team, and each picked up a score and an assist in the first-round win. The team’s depth on the attack was on full display against the Dukes as five different players scored. The five goals tied for the second-largest offensive outburst ever recorded by Duke in NCAA tournament action.

Although Florida Gulf Coast (14-5-2) has an offensive weapon that would strike fear in even the most seasoned backs, Church is confident in his squad’s ability to contain the Eagles’ lethal forward Tabby Tindell. Tindell has found the net 17 times this season—tied for seventh in the nation—and also added 10 assists.

“Fortunately, we’ve played against a lot of teams that have good frontrunners, just being the nature of our league,” Church said. “[Tindell]’s got deceptive speed.… She doesn’t need much of a window. If she gets a half of a window, she’ll get a shot off.”

Although being careful not to underestimate Tindell or the Eagles’ number two on the attack, Paulina Speckmaier, the Blue Devils are confident in a defense that has been sharpened all season long against strong ACC offenses.

“[Defense] is just something we have to continue to pride ourselves on,” Proctor said. “That’s just such a key part of the game, because if they can’t score, then they won’t win.”

After a win last week that Proctor said was taut with high energy and nerves, Church said he is ready for his team to settle down through the week of practices and focus on the task at hand—a journey he said started last season with the Blue Devils’ loss to Florida State in the regular-season finale. The defeat put Duke under .500 and eliminated the Blue Devils’ postseason hopes. Church credited much of the team’s success since that sobering moment to the determination and leadership of the upperclassmen.

Now more than ever, the leadership of the experienced juniors and seniors will set the tone for the freshmen and sophomores experiencing the NCAA tournament for the first time. This weekend will be a true test for Duke when in the span of just three days the field of teams will shrink from 32 to eight. But for now, every game counts towards the ultimate—and so far elusive—goal of the program.

“All of a sudden it becomes pretty real. We’re proud to be here, it’s an honor to be in the NCAA tournament,” Church said. “This is just another game as we go forward hopefully in our march toward a national championship.”

A Duke win would send the Blue Devils on to Sunday’s third round match against either second-seeded Florida or William & Mary at 2 p.m. Duke defeated the Tribe 2-0 Aug. 30.

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