No. 13 Duke will compete in a pair of Friday-Sunday games for the third time in as many weeks, but this weekend stands out among the slew of grueling tests the Blue Devils have endured during the opening month of their 2017 campaign.
Duke will host UNC Wilmington Friday at 7:30 p.m. before taking on Auburn—which made an Elite Eight appearance in last year’s NCAA tournament—at Koskinen Stadium at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in the Duke Nike Classic. The Blue Devils can expect to play in front of a sizable home crowd for both contests filled with familiar faces as Duke head coach Robbie Church goes for his 200th win with the program.
“Our tournament is always one of the highlights of our season,” Church said. “We get a lot of fans and a lot of family coming back…. We typically get a lot of alumni who come in for the weekend. We have our 2018 recruits coming in, so it’s a great game to have everybody there. It’s like the Duke soccer family all comes together.”
The Blue Devils (3-1-0) may be finding a rhythm at just the right time. After much of its core was sidelined with various injuries last year, Duke has spent much of its season thus far getting comfortable with each other and learning to play together as a unit.
Junior striker Kayla McCoy missed the bulk of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, midfielder Taylor Racioppi suffered a lower-leg injury midway through the season and former Olympian Rebecca Quinn battled turf toe for all but four games. The trio is playing together for the first time since the very beginning of the Blue Devils’ 2016 campaign, and Church finally sees them meshing.
“We’ve got everybody healthy now,” Church said. “We started to play more as a core group together. We’ve changed some positions with it. The more we play together, the better that we’re going to be. You could see that happening.”
Although Duke has seen many of its major role players return to the field to start this season, sophomore defender Mia Gyau—who stepped into a starting position with the Blue Devils during the past year—tore her ACL and MCL in Duke’s 2-0 win against Bucknell Aug. 25. She will be sidelined for the remainder of the season and, after her surgery Sept. 7, Gyau will look to make a speedy recovery.
In the meantime, the Blue Devils will need to focus their efforts on finding a formation to accommodate for the Colesville, Md., native’s departure. Junior midfielder Kat McDonald—who played 45 minutes of Duke’s last two contests and started against Old Dominion Aug. 27—seems primed to get Church’s starting nod, though it will take a group effort to compensate for Gyau’s absence.
“It’s a huge loss for us,” Church said. “[Gyau’s] athleticism and her ability to beat people on the dribble are very, very special. But we have a deep team, and the motto is just next person up. Taylor Racioppi will be one of those players who will step up. Also on that right side typically is Ashton [Miller] or Kat [McDonald] in the midfield, so that combination coming down with Morgan [Reid], Ashton, Kat or Taylor on that side. We’ll replace Mia with two or three people.”
The Blue Devils will face a hungry in-state opponent in their first matchup tinkering with this new lineup. The Seahawks (2-2-0) come to Durham fresh off of a 1-0 loss to Navy and two weeks after dropping a 2-0 decision against then-No. 11 Virginia. UNC Wilmington is 2-20-1 all-time against ACC teams and will look to avenge its loss to the Cavaliers with a win against one of its two ACC opponents in the tournament.
After his daughter, Ashley, played four seasons under Seahawk head coach Paul Cairney, Church has become very familiar with UNC Wilmington’s style of play and with Cairney’s approach leading up to Friday’s contest.
“I have an idea of how Paul is riling those girls up all week,” Church said. “UNCW is a hard team to play. They’re going to play hard. They always play hard for him. It’s an opportunity [for them] to play an ACC school and a nationally-ranked school. They don’t have a lot of those opportunities, so they’re going to give us their best shot.”
Duke will have to rally quickly to take on a historically strong program in Auburn. Although the Tigers (2-1-1) fell out of the top 25 after tying Lipscomb 2-2 at home Aug. 20, they took then-No. 20 Clemson to double overtime before losing on a golden goal in the 102nd minute.
The Blue Devils will need to get all they can get out of this weekend’s contests before facing No. 6 West Virginia late next week. The Mountaineers knocked Duke out of the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals last season before falling to Southern California in the national championship.
“Year in and year out, [Auburn is] a top-notch team, one that’s always competing,” Church said. “That’s the type of teams we want to play at this time of the year to see where we are against some of the best teams in the country. We need their best shot to help us continue to get better and better.”
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