Duke head coach Robbie Church usually makes calculated superlatives. He does not say that his team is his best ever, just that it is the most consistent. Asked about Rebecca Quinn throughout the season, he spoke extremely highly of her, but still held back.
With one weekend left in Quinn’s career, though, Church was finally ready to make a statement he has probably thought about for a while Tuesday evening. Is she the best player the 17-year Duke head coach has ever mentored? Yes.
Quinn is not just the best soccer player ever at Duke in his eyes, but also one of the best players in the world. That is a statement hardly any other student-athlete at Duke can say. The only competition might come from Steven Solomon, a graduate transfer on the track and field team who finished eighth in the 400 meters at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Quinn went to the Olympics in 2016 and helped Canada win a bronze medal, contributing an assist and playing solid defense against the best players in the world. Now she is a regular starter on that team, and she looked like one of the best players on the field in a scrimmage this month against the United States.
So it begs the question. You’re going to go pro—she said it looks like she’ll play in the National Women's Soccer League after college. You’re among the top players in the world. You represent your country on the national team.
Why care about college soccer?
Quinn chuckled when she heard the question, then paused.
“This has been my home the past five years and the people who I’ve gotten to know. That’s why I play,” she said. “It’s all of the incredible people at Duke, and the atmosphere has made me really care about it. Duke is such an incredible environment in the sense that it’s constantly pushing you, which is something that I looked for in a university. And that’s what I’ve grown to love.”
If experiencing camaraderie matters deeply to her, it is easy to see why sometimes she has missed it so much. Her sophomore and junior spring semesters, she did not take classes or spend time on campus.
Instead, she trained with the Canadian national team, helping secure her spot on the Olympic team in 2016.
“The hardest part of my Duke experience is having to take those springs off and then jumping back into preseason and just not having that bonding time with the team,” the Toronto native said. “Especially in the spring because it's our offseason, people get to be a little bit more social and have experiences outside of soccer with teammates.”
She said that after spending the spring and summer of 2017 on campus, she considers what was already a “really close” senior class her closest friend group.
Perhaps that comfort explains some of her success this year. She is the focal point of the team in every sense of the word. As a defensive midfielder, she takes the ball from the defense and distributes it to the offense.
Sound easy? Well many have tried, and there is a reason she was named ACC Midfielder of the Year despite only posting two goals and one assist at the time of the announcement.
“She just sees the game differently,” Church said Oct. 8 after two-time national champion coach Mark Krikorian said it was like Duke had a pro on the field when it beat his Florida State team. “It is [like playing with a pro].”
Last year with Quinn redshirting due to injury, the team struggled turning shots into goals. The Blue Devils only scored once for every nine shots they took, and part of the reason why was they had to send long balls from the defense rather than going through the midfield, getting the ball out wide and then crossing it in.
This year, Duke’s shot-to-goal ratio is almost 50 percent better. The Blue Devils played four games this year without Quinn and lost twice to North Carolina—she has not lost in a college game she played in since falling in the 2015 national championship.
The game that probably best reflects her importance to the team was the first round of the NCAA tournament. Like last year, it was shots galore for Duke, but the Blue Devils beat UNC Greensboro just 1-0.
The next three games—against increasingly better competition—with Quinn back?
7-0, 3-0 and 4-0 wins.
For as good as she is now, Quinn did not seem to have that same impact even two years ago.
“She’ll probably tell you [it’s because] we finally put her in the right position,” Church said. “We played her at center back for a number of years and she always begged, pleaded that she wanted to play as a midfielder. She was just so good at center back.”
Church said that with the level of play from senior Schuyler DeBree—ACC Defensive Player of the Year—and freshman Taylor Mitchell on the back line, he was comfortable pushing Quinn up the field.
It might not have even gotten to that decision if Quinn’s father was so active in her college recruiting process. He found out about and sent her to Duke’s summer soccer camp, and she said otherwise she might not have decided which college to attend until her senior year.
“In Canada, the sports are just so different,” she said. “People just look in grade 12 for whichever school they're going to go to, so it was really tough not understanding how college athletics work in the U.S. and how early the recruiting process is.”
She is part of a new generation of Canadian soccer players that have raised the country’s profile in the sport. The team once lost to the United States 9-1 in the Olympics in 2000, but has since won bronze medals in back-to-back Summer Games.
In the process, Canadians have had increasing presences in college soccer. In 2010, Adriana Leon scored the game-winning goal in the national championship for Notre Dame. Last year, West Virginia defeated Duke in the quarterfinals and reached the national championship thanks to Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Amandine Pierre-Louis, Carla Portillo and Rylee Foster.
Friday night, against UCLA in the quarterfinals, Quinn’s opposing center midfielder will be Jessie Fleming, another member of the Canadian national team.
“We haven’t typically recruited the international athlete, because we haven’t had a lot of great contacts up there,” Church said.
Things have worked out well for both Quinn and Duke in the years since. A national championship would be nice too.
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