Being a Duke freshman isn't easy. You've got to navigate the many bus routes between two campuses, manage a limited meal plan and make new friends, all on top of a full load of classes.
If you're a freshman playing for a team that made the Final Four last season and had to replace five all-ACC starters, though, the difficulty only ratchets up a notch.
But after a shocking opening-weekend loss, Robbie Church's group of young Blue Devils has settled in, holding its opponents scoreless for the last 245 minutes and earning a dominant home win last Sunday with what Church termed as "their best half of the season." Now, No. 12 Duke will turn its attention to a pair of home clashes in the Duke Nike Classic when it hosts Marquette Thursday at 7 p.m. and Providence Sunday at 2:30, both at Koskinen Stadium.
Church has had his own challenges as a coach, managing a group that has seen two freshmen and four sophomores play more than 200 minutes apiece in the Blue Devils' first four contests.
"We’ve been pretty inconsistent as far as our style of play, our execution, as far as defending, but we’re looking to improve, especially in transition. We’ve given up a lot of opportunities even though we haven’t given up a lot of goals," Church said. "As we attack, we’ve got to execute a little bit better…. Once we do the right things—share the ball, pass and move, change the point and then really attack the goal—we’ll be able to score goals from it."
On the offensive side of things, it's been one of those freshmen that hasn't taken long to make an impact. Marykate McGuire leads Duke in both shots and shots on goal, and en route to victory against Elon, the rookie logged her first collegiate goal.
McGuire, with an uncanny ability to turn on a dime and fire on goal, has given the Blue Devils a lift in the attack, making up for the graduation of Imani Dorsey—last year's points leader and the ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
"She’s very active up front—when she gets a ball played into her feet, she turns very well," Church said. "She needs to be a little more composed. It was great to see her get her first college goal. There’s many of those to come in her next four years. She’s been really good—sometimes she’s started, sometimes she’s come off the bench, and in both of those areas she’s been very, very good."
For McGuire and her young teammates, the early-season upset might've been just what the doctor ordered.
"The moment it happened it was a wake-up and a reminder to realize that we need to get going," McGuire said. "After that, we all sat down and figured out what we wanted and how to work as a team to get what we wanted. And every practice since then, we’ve been working really hard and just know that we have to stay focused."
But just as it is for most young players, there's an adjustment period.
Although McGuire—a Portsmouth, R.I., native—played with the Boston Breakers' academy team for six years, won two state championships in high school and was named Rhode Island's Gatorade Player of the Year three straight seasons, she's still figuring her way around the college game.
"It’s definitely more intense and more skill," McGuire said. "I love it. It’s honestly so much better and I’m so happy to be on a team like this."
And while it might be easy for a young group to get distracted, these Blue Devils seem to be right on track with conference play looming in just two and a half weeks.
"As a team, we focus on us, and only us, and we get ready to mold to whoever we play," McGuire said. "I know Providence—that’s where I’m from, so it’ll definitely be good—but we’re just going to stick to our game and do what we do."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."