CARY, N.C.—For the Blue Devils, the third time was not the charm—but it has the potential to be a building block for the future.
For the third time in the history of the program—and the second in head coach Robbie Church’s 15-year tenure—the Blue Devils’ story in the College Cup did not have a happy ending. A lone second-half goal prevented Church’s squad from capturing its first national title and instead handed the hardware to Penn State, a nearly identical script to Stanford's 1-0 win against Duke in the 2011 championship match in Kennesaw, Ga.
“Even though we’re not carrying the trophy championship home, I can’t be prouder of this group for their commitments and work and how together this team was. I feel like these girls are champions in their own right,” Church said.
Duke’s road to the College Cup final in Cary did not start at the start of preseason workouts August but rather on last year’s Halloween, when the Blue Devils were left out of postseason for the first time in 12 years after falling to Florida State 2-0. Church’s players made the promise to return to the NCAA tournament in 2015 and started preparing for the season in the spring, welcoming talented newcomers and playing some exhibition games through March and April.
Thirteen months after the loss against the Seminoles, the Blue Devils advanced through a tournament gauntlet that included five conference champions all the way to the College Cup final, deploying more of a defensive-minded scheme than in years past. Duke ended its season with 16 goals allowed in 25 contests, four scores less than in 2014 despite adding six more games to its calendar.
“I have so much respect for how the players themselves handled so many things both on the field and off the field and how hard they worked and played as a team,” Church said. “For any successful team, that has to happen.”
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Church and his squad kicked off the season with a pair of routs, outscoring Fresno State and Weber State by a total of 9-0 in the UNC Nike Classic in August.
By Oct. 4, though, it was difficult to envision the Blue Devils participating in the College Cup. After a 4-2 loss against then-No. 7 Virginia Tech at Koskinen Stadium, the Blue Devils owned a 6-4-3 record and were 0-2-2 in the ACC. The fears of being left out of postseason action for the second consecutive year appeared on the horizon.
But instead, the defeat against the Hokies proved to be the turning point of Duke's season.
“In the Virginia Tech game, we got beaten so badly that we were embarrassed,” Church said. “At that point, we all came back together and talked about what was important to us and what we had to do successful. I think from that point we took off.”
In its last six conference contests, Church’s squad only conceded two goals, found the back of the net 10 times and registered a historic 1-0 win against their Tobacco Road rival, then-No. 7 North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. Two weeks later, the Blue Devils ended their regular season the same way they started it, blitzing N.C. State 5-0.
Duke kept the momentum going in the NCAA tournament with three straight wins, scoring nine goals and only allowing one. Church and the Blue Devils spent Thanksgiving in California, one day before taking on Pac 12 titleholders Stanford in the Elite Eight. Tied 1-1 after 110 minutes of action, sophomore goalkeeper E.J. Proctor made the Cardinal pay for the Blue Devils' tears in 2011 by stopping two penalty kicks, sending her and her teammates on to the Final Four in their own backyard.
A rematch against defending national champion Florida State came Friday, and the Blue Devils found themselves 90 minutes away from capturing their first national title after defeating the Seminoles 2-0.
Sunday's loss will take time to swallow, but the Blue Devils remain loaded for a repeat run at the title in 2016. Ten of the 11 players who started the College Cup final should return next season—including juniors Toni Payne, Christina Gibbons, Rebecca Quinn and Lizzy Raben—and 14 underclassmen got their first taste of the biggest stage of collegiate soccer. Proctor—the tournament's Most Outstanding Player on Defense—will step back between the pipes looking to repeat her standout numbers as a first-year starter—80 saves and 11 solo shutouts.
But first, Duke needs to take a breath, take care of final exams and get a bit of rest.
“I know these guys need off a while—it’s been a long year,” Church said. “I’m sure when we get back from the holidays we will start carving out our path for our spring. I know this group and they won’t be resting for long over the holidays. A lot of them will be out on the fields running and will be evaluating themselves and what they need to continue to work on to get better.”