The Seminoles put an end to the Blue Devils’ season in 2014 with a 2-0 victory on Halloween. Thirteen months later, head coach Robbie Church’s team will look to make the defending national champions pay for leaving it out of postseason action for the first time in 12 years.
With a berth in the NCAA tournament title game on the line, third-seeded Duke will take on top-ranked and defending national champion Florida State Friday at 7:30 in Cary, N.C. in the Final Four semifinal. The Blue Devils and Seminoles tied 0-0 after 110 minutes of action Sept. 20 in their conference opener, but now it is do-or-die time for both squads—if the score remains tied at the end of two overtimes this time around, penalty kicks would decide who will return to the WakeMed Soccer Park Sunday for the College Cup final.
“[This game] is going to be totally different. Florida State didn’t have four starters and another player was injured so they’re a completely different team,” Church said. “Over the last month, all of them are back and they are a very good group of players. They are the best team we’ve seen all year. But we’re excited because they’re the defending national champions and the best team around. An offensive key [against the Seminoles] will be ball possession and scoring on our opportunities. Defensively, we’ve got to stay nice and compact. So let’s play them and see where we are.”
Duke (13-5-5) enters Friday’s game averaging 2.5 goals per contest in the NCAA tournament and 1.91 scores throughout the entire season.
Two freshmen attackers have made an immediate impact in the team’s offense this year, as Kayla McCoy and Taylor Racioppi are tied as the team’s leading scorers with seven goals apiece. Two other underclassmen, sophomores Ashton Miller and Imani Dorsey, have combined for 10 goals and eight assists and juniors Toni Payne and Christina Gibbons have found their teammates nine times this year as well.
“I think it will be great for us having so many fans and local families coming out to support us,” junior centerback Rebecca Quinn said. “That’s always a huge thing for us, even just feeling this week around campus. Having people coming up to us saying that they are supporting us, following us, rooting for us has been really good for the team. It’s great motivation.”
Since the beginning of the season, Church has regularly praised the role of his squad’s defense, an aspect of the game in which Quinn and her teammates have posted impressive numbers. In their last 10 games, the Blue Devils have allowed only four goals and opponents have totaled just 15 scores the entire year.
Goalkeeper E.J. Proctor—who received National Team of the Week honors from TopDrawSoccer.com this weekend—has delivered 10 solo shutouts and registers 72 saves so far. The sophomore from Wilson, N.C., stole the spotlight Friday, when Duke defeated top-seeded Stanford 3-2 in a penalty shootout in the Elite Eight. Proctor collected seven saves that prevented the Cardinal from breaking the 1-1 tie after 110 minutes of action and then made two monster stops in the penalty-kick lottery that qualified Duke for the Final Four.
“The cohesion that great defensive backlines have and their ability to just understand the other players that they’re playing with is always huge for backlines that do well and have stingy defenses,” Quinn said. “E.J. [Proctor] is one—a huge motivation. She knows when people are having a hard game and when not and she’s able to bring us back from that.”
The Seminoles (18-2-4) took home their third consecutive ACC crown Nov. 8, when they defeated top-seeded Virginia 7-6 in a penalty shootout after a 2-2 two-overtime draw.
Quinn and the other Blue Devil defenders will look to control senior attacker Cheyna Williams and freshman midfielder Megan Connolly, who have combined for 19 goals and 17 assists this year. Williams and Connolly have netted five of the team’s 15 goals in the NCAA tournament and have weapons alongside them in Icelandic forwards Elin Jensen and Berglind Thorvaldsdottir—who have totaled 15 goals and seven feeds together and have found the back of the net four times in the NCAA tournament. Connolly and Thornvaldsdottir did not play against the Blue Devils Sept. 20 as they had international duty with their national teams.
Defensively, Florida State has blanked all four of its NCAA tournament opponents, registering its 10th consecutive national-championship shutout in the 5-0 rout against Texas A&M Friday in the Elite Eight.
The Seminoles have 15 shutouts in their pocket and have allowed only 0.54 goals per contest. Starter goalkeeper Cassie Miller has collected 47 saves and has conceded only 13 goals.
If Quinn and her teammates upset the defending national champion, they will battle the winner of the matchup between Rutgers and Penn State for the national championship.
“We haven’t been satisfied all year. We’ve always moved to the next challenge,” Church said. “Early into the year, we talked about eating Thanksgiving dinner together and we ended up beating Florida [Nov. 22 in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.] And then the next thing was that we wanted to play December soccer. Not many people play soccer in December but we’re [doing it.] Now it would be ‘Do you want to be the first team to win a national championship for Duke?’ [That’s] something that nobody can take away from you."