Daniele Proch was the last one to filter out of the locker room. Virginia Tech’s players and their families were celebrating outside the field, but the expressions on the faces of the Blue Devils trudging across the pitch were anything but joyful.
A 2-1 loss to Virginia Tech on Friday night upset Duke’s senior night and ensured that the seniors will not get another chance to play at Koskinen Stadium. The night began with the Blue Devils’ nine seniors and their loved ones taking the field to be honored, and ended with many seniors lingering by the stands, collecting hugs and gifts from family and taking in Koskinen together for one last time.
“You get out here, and you look at the pitch—it's beautiful,” said senior Brandon Williamson. “It looks like it had been sitting here for months just waiting for us to play on it, and you sit here under the lights with the sunset and it’s just a different feeling.... That’s why I’m so sad that I’m going to be leaving.”
The night started with optimism for Duke (7-8-2, 2-5-1 in the ACC). Its game against the Hokies started well, with neither team clearly dominating, and several barely-missed opportunities, including a Suniel Veerakone drive in the fifth minute and a Daniel Wright shot from the left flank that required all 6-foot-4 of Virginia Tech goalie Mathijs Swaneveld to save.
In the 32nd minute, the ball was cleared after a Hokie corner kick, but was passed back into the middle of the field to Virginia Tech forward Daniel Pereira, driving into the box. Pereira took a rather unremarkable shot, but it deflected off the ankle of a Duke defender, turning a routine save into a ball spinning just outside of goalie Will Pulisic’s reach and into the goal.
The Blue Devils kept the pressure on, though. But despite their forwards continuing to get off quality shots, they couldn’t convert for most of the half.
Duke did catch a break in the 45th minute, when a Max Moser crosser from the right wing floated over the heads of two defenders from Virginia Tech (8-5-2, 2-4-2) and landed right in front of Daniele Proch’s foot for an easy goal. That took the Blue Devils into the locker room on a good note, but they fell flat in the second half.
In the 63rd minute, a Virginia Tech free kick fluttered awkwardly into the middle of the box, where Pulisic tried to grab it. But its momentum died upon landing, and Pulisic couldn’t get to the ball in time, giving Hokie forward Kristo Strickler an easy goal.
The game went downhill from there, and despite being just a one-score game, Duke never looked competitive again.
“Well we were second-best again in the first half in all facets of the game,” said Duke head coach John Kerr. “Scoring that goal right before half time gave us a bit of a lift and gave us a little bit of hope, [but I’m] disappointed with our conceding the second goal because we were getting back into the game playing a little bit better. It’s a shame…. [Virginia Tech] defended well the last 20 minutes and we just couldn't conjure up a goal.”
The “tight first half, noncompetitive second half” is a theme that has been all too common for the Blue Devils in 2019. In their ten combined losses and ties this year, they have surrendered the game-tying or game-winning goal in the second half in eight of those games.
“It’s definitely been a topsy-turvy season for us,” said Kerr. “I described our team as Jekyll-and-Hyde. It came true again this evening where with senior night, we have a lot to play for, and the wrong group showed up tonight. It’s disappointing…but you know what can I say, it’s been that way the whole year.”
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This loss not only meant that Duke would play the ACC tournament on the road, but that it would be seeded 12th, lowest in the conference. Even so, the seniors’ night wasn’t spoiled.
“Today is just one out of like 68 games or something I’ve played here at Koskinen,” said Williamson. “Yeah, it sucks that we lost, but I've won just as many. It’s just out here being [in] the energy [from] the fact that I'm here with my seniors on senior night, and win or lose, they’re still my boys, and it’s still a good night at Koskinen.”
“[Duke soccer is special] because of the relationships you build in your time here,” said Proch. “Then, when you step on the field, you feel these relationships come alive in the game.”
The Blue Devils open ACC tournament play in Raleigh against NC State this week.