Since dropping their first regular season matchup to rival North Carolina Aug. 18, the Blue Devils have been focused on shoring up their play before facing stiffer competition in conference play.
They have done just that, to the tune of five straight victories, back-to-back shutouts and more than 200 career wins for head coach Robbie Church.
No. 13 Duke rounded out the Duke Nike Classic Sunday afternoon at Koskinen Stadium with a 2-0 victory against Auburn, which lost in the Elite Eight of last year’s NCAA tournament and started out this season ranked in the top 25. Sophomore forward Ella Stevens converted on a free kick to put the Blue Devils on the board, and senior captain Imani Dorsey punched a loose ball into the back of the net for her fifth goal in as many games. Although Duke did not come away with the title at its annual home tournament, this weekend marks the Blue Devils’ first two-win showing in the Classic since 2012.
“I think it’s a really positive weekend and a really solid win for us,” Church said. “We won two games and [got] five wins in a row. We grew from a mental standpoint as well as a physical standpoint. We just grew this weekend, and that’s what we’re looking to do.”
After lightning delayed their Friday night contest against UNC Wilmington and kept them from leaving Koskinen Stadium until 11:30 p.m., the Blue Devils rallied for an early-afternoon kickoff and came out strong against the Tigers (2-3-1). Duke jumped out to an early 4-1 shot advantage through the opening 20 minutes, but, as has been a trend from the start of this season, the Blue Devils struggled to convert on any of their opportunities in front of the net.
Although Duke (5-1-0) has found success on set plays, its offense has struggled to finish during the general run of play. A third of the Blue Devils’ goals this season have come from set plays, causing Church and the rest of the Duke coaching staff to place an emphasis on dynamic play in their attacking third.
“The one thing we talked to them about was just really attacking and going at them,” Church said. “We’re still not aggressive enough offensively. Sometimes we bail defenders out by cutting the ball back or touching it into pressure. Offensively, we still can get better, and we get better in our mindset just by being more aggressive.”
Although her goal came in the form of a free kick, Stevens certainly did not shy away from attacking the net as she lined up her shot. She had taken numerous free kicks for the Blue Devils Friday night and lofted each of them in front of the net for one of her teammates to put on goal. But after 23:59 of watching her team struggle to convert, the Grayson, Ga., native took matters into her own hands.
Stevens blasted a rocket into the right side netting past a frozen Auburn goalkeeper from just outside the left corner of the 18-yard box. It was Duke’s first score of the day and her first score of the season. Although she led the Blue Devils with 10 goals and 26 points last season, the former Gatorade National High School Player of the Year had struggled to generate much offense until this point in her sophomore campaign.
“It was really nice. It was like, a big relief, to finally get that goal in,” Stevens said. “I wanted to shoot that. I saw the back post open and went for it. “I was like, ‘Breathe. Just breathe, don’t hit it over. We got this,’ and I don’t really remember hitting it. I think I just blacked out a little bit.”
With some of her fellow attackers having trouble finding the back of the net, Dorsey has been the key to Duke’s offense thus far this season, and Sunday’s contest was no exception. The Elkridge, Md., native took eight shots—seven of which she placed on goal—to add to the Blue Devils’ lopsided 16-5 shot advantage.
She finally broke through in the 56th minute, sliding through the six-yard box to jab a loose ball through traffic and past Tiger netminder Sarah Le Beau. Although it was far from her prettiest score of the season, Duke will take whatever it can get from its leading goalscorer, who boasts a team-high 11 points to boot.
“I felt like I was really connected with Kayla [McCoy] and Ella [Stevens] and Taylor [Racioppi] up front,” Dorsey said. “I knew where they wanted to play the ball and they knew where I was running, so I was able to find some good spaces between the defenders. I was really happy with the way we had combination play and got in a lot behind their defense.”
The Blue Devils will need to capitalize on that offensive chemistry as its schedule intensifies in the coming weeks, beginning with a trip to Morgantown, W.V., to take on No. 6 West Virginia. The Mountaineers ousted the Blue Devils from last year’s NCAA Tournament in the quarterfinals before falling to Southern California in the title game.
But Duke appears to be finding its stride at just the right time. Its offense is picking up the pace after injuries kept major contributors—like Stevens, Racioppi and McCoy—off the field late last season, and its defense has notched two straight shutouts despite losing starter Mia Gyau for the season against Bucknell August 25.
“That gives us a lot of confidence going into West Virginia,” Dorsey said. “As long as we can match them physically, then we’ve got a good game on our hands. They’re always a great opponent.”
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