CARY, N.C.—Friday evening, freshman attacker Kayla McCoy did something nobody had done since Dec. 8, 2013—she scored a goal against defending national champion Florida State in an NCAA tournament contest.
After the Seminoles fell to UCLA 1-0 in the national championship game two years ago, they blanked their next 10 NCAA opponents. But the Blue Devils put an end to the Seminoles’ 24-month scoreless streak in postseason play in the first half of the College Cup semifinal when McCoy finished a stunning assist from junior Toni Payne from inside the small box, notching what proved to be the game-winning goal in a 2-0 win Friday at the WakeMed Soccer Park.
In the 32nd minute, Payne controlled a ball on the right side of Duke’s offensive third. As three Seminoles shadowed the Birmingham, Ala., native trying to prevent her from finding an opening, she touched the ball once, she touched the ball twice. A fourth Florida State player was ready to corral her, but at that moment, the junior forward saw McCoy entering the Seminoles’ 18-yard area. With the outside part of her right foot, Payne assisted the freshman, who brought the pass under control, entered the six-yard box and finished with a low shot toward the far post.
“[The goal] was very similar to what we have done in the past, where Toni just runs, draws three, four, maybe even five defenders to her and I make my run across her run,” McCoy said. “And she just lifted her head and set me through. Obviously, what was different about this time is that I was able to finish it. That was really cool to be able to do that in this atmosphere. Definitely with the crowd and the team, there was adrenaline flowing. It’s a bit hissy in my head what exactly happened. It’s a real surreal experience.”
McCoy’s goal perfectly represented what Duke’s offense has been throughout the entire season—a balance of talent and hard work.
The Blue Devil attack has featured multiple weapons from different classes this season, with McCoy's eight goals leading the way and classmate Taylor Racioppi's seven not far behind. Racioppi is also Duke’s leading facilitator with six feeds and Payne is tied with sophomore midfielder Ashton Miller and junior captain Christina Gibbons with five assists.
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But an aspect of the game that sometimes is not as visible as scoring and assisting in soccer, especially when analyzing the attackers’ contribution in the field, is how frequently the front line participates in defending. The Blue Devils have deployed a mass of players behind the ball when they do not have possession this year, with strikers hustling to get back and position themselves in the squad’s defensive third. Provoking turnovers to recover the ball and start counter-attack plays was a key to reach the College Cup title game.
“Because the forwards defend and how they defend, it helps our offense. But more important than that, they put the team first,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “[The forwards] collectively knew that if [they] defended as a group and do not let the other team score goals, then we couldn’t lose. We could draw at the very worst scenario. You have to take your hat off for the forwards and their sacrifice. They have sacrificed themselves for the betterment of the goal. That just talks about the character of those players.”
No player may better exemplify that sacrifice than Payne. The forward needed some time to adapt to the Blue Devils’ defensive mindset this season, as she was not used to get back and help her teammates to protect their goal during her two first years at Duke or in her club experience. But the effort has paid off and the junior now combines remarkable dribbling skills with tenacious defense to pressure on opponents when she does not have the ball at her feet.
“This year our coaches have really made sure that we are very committed to the defensive side of the ball," Payne said. "That’s our first priority because that’s one thing that we can control—how hard we work defensively."
Duke ended up doubling its lead thanks a score from Payne with one second left to play. It was the highlight to cap off the night's standout performance—the junior not only assisted McCoy to put the Blue Devils ahead 1-0 but came within inches of scoring early in the 52nd minute, only to hit the woodwork. More importantly, Payne's fourth goal of the season was a reward for the immense defensive effort she put forth throughout her 82 minutes on the pitch against the Seminoles Friday.
“Overall, as a whole team, [we've done] really well defensively in this whole tournament. In this game, what was mainly part of how I scored that goal was the tenacity of our defense and midfielders all getting behind the ball,” Payne said. “We knew that in this game we were going to have a lot of opportunities in counter-attack because they push so many people forward. I saw that there were 10 seconds left and I decided that I had nothing to lose—so I just went for it.”