On Aug. 25, the Blue Devils fell 2-0 to rival North Carolina. Classes started the next day.
In the seven and a half weeks since then, Duke students have seen a lot, from the removal of an “unsettling” painting in Keohane to the opening of a brand-new Alumni and Visitors Center to a particularly prominent ‘nut.’
One thing they haven’t seen, though, is another Duke women’s soccer loss.
After two games in a row in the friendly confines of Koskinen Stadium, the No. 9 Blue Devils will head to Kentucky looking to keep up their 11-game unbeaten streak on the road against No. 14 Louisville at 5 p.m. Friday in Lynn Stadium. The teams’ sixth annual matchup, this year's will be another steep test for Duke as the Cardinals have also dropped just one game this year, also a loss to North Carolina.
“Louisville is having a career year. They’ll be up for the game. They’re an older team, they’ve been together a number of years and they work really well together,” said Blue Devils head coach Robbie Church. “They coordinate and press you, and they’re very good on set plays. We have our hands full.”
Indeed, this year’s Cardinals team is likely the best that Duke will face in six years of contests since Louisville (11-1-1, 4-1-1 in the ACC) joined the ACC in 2014, replacing the University of Maryland. The Blue Devils lead the all-time series 2-0-3 since that first year of conference play and have won in back-to-back years after three years of scoreless ties. However, Duke’s wins haven’t come easily. Last year, the then-10th ranked Blue Devils required a late penalty kick to escape an upset in Durham, while the previous year they needed double overtime to avoid an even more crushing loss as the then-No. 4 team in the nation.
One familiar face Duke (7-1-5, 2-0-4) will have to contain Friday evening is Louisville midfielder Emina Ekic, who notched goals in each of those Blue Devils wins the past two seasons and is off to a torrid start to her junior year. Through 13 games, Ekic has seven goals and six assists with a total of 20 points, more than double the next highest player on her team.
Though Ekic has been superb, the Blue Devils defense has also been extremely impressive as of late. In six of its last nine games, it has held its opponents scoreless, and during its 11-game streak without a loss it has surrendered more than one goal just twice, both times in 3-2 victories.
Part of the reason for Duke’s defensive success has been a new formation that brings an extra player back on defense, taking away an attacker in favor of solidifying the team’s back line. This is partially a response to injuries to key threats Sophie Jones and Mia Gyau, both of whom are out for the remainder of the season.
“There’s a huge resiliency in this team. They pride themselves on being so hard to break down defensively. They pride themselves on getting clean sheets and putting up zeroes on the board,” said Church. “We understand if we [hold our opponent to] zero we’re not going to lose. We may not win but we’re not going to lose a game. We’ve gone 11 games in a row without losing which is really remarkable with the quality schedule we have this year and where we are.”
Indeed, in this 11-game stretch without a loss, the Blue Devils have hung tough with some of the best teams in the country, including top-five teams Virginia and North Carolina as well as No. 17 Clemson,whom Duke dispatched easily 4-1 last weekend. The Clemson game was a perfect model of how the Blue Devils plan on attacking out of their new formation, as they relied heavily on capitalizing on the Tigers’ mistakes to score.
“Because of the change in our formation we’re going to continue to work on our buildup and how we can create more offensive chances,” said Church. “And then we’ve just got to be ready when those chances come. There’s not going to be a ton of them, but they will be there. And when they come, we’ve got to be ready to finish them.”
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Factoring heavily into their ability to capitalize on chances is sophomore Mackenzie Pluck, who was named the ACC Offensive Player of the Week after tallying five points in the win against Clemson. Pluck and her fellow sophomore forward Marykate McGuire will need to carry the load this weekend against the Cardinals as Duke hopes to keep its run going with the ACC tournament looming in the near future.
“We can’t afford to exhale. We have to keep going forward. Our goal is the ACC Tournament. We want to be in that top four [seeds in the tournament].” Church said. “We have to keep the pedal to the gas, and we can’t let up. We’ve got to be ready to play every day and compete.”