An up-and-down season for the Blue Devils that included seven draws, a 14-game unbeaten streak, eight overtimes, and several major injuries came to an end against Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
After blowing past Utah 4-0 at home in the first round on the back of freshman Emily Duerr’s pair of goals, the Blue Devils looked to take their offensive momentum with them as they traveled to Los Angeles to take on No. 3-seed Wisconsin. But, from the first whistle, momentum seemed to be on Wisconsin’s side. Duke was able to keep its momentum at bay but, at the end of the night, it was the Badgers that emerged on top with a goal in the 78th minute.
“Congratulations first to Wisconsin for a hard fought game, they took their opportunity when one came about,” said head coach Robbie Church. “We played hard the whole game, we battled and played hard. We had some chances and we just didn't finish the chances. But I think a lot of kudos goes to this group of players.... A lot of players grew as players on the field. So I’m just so proud of this group that competed every game and it’s a wonderful wonderful group of young ladies to be around and it was really a lot of fun.”
Both teams came into the match having given up less than 15 goals each over the entire season and Duke (9-4-7) came in with the knowledge that, if it scored, the Blue Devils should have a good chance to pull this one out—Duke had never lost when scoring in a game this season. That trend continued against the Badgers, just not in the way they’d hoped.
Wisconsin (16-3-2) came out of the gate with early pressure on the opposing side of the field, making it hard for the Blue Devils to develop any sort of consistent offensive approach. The Badgers controlled the ball for much of the first half, with the Blue Devils only getting the occasional touch. It was Duke’s backline of Taylor Mitchell and Caitlin Cosme, along with goalkeeper Brooke Heinsohn, that had to do most of the heavy lifting in the first half, preventing several opportunities from the Badgers from turning into a lead.
However, the best look from either side in the first half came in the 17th minute from Duke sophomore forward Marykate McGuire, Duke’s leading goalscorer on the year. With a clear shot at the goal, all she needed to do was get it past Wisconsin's keeper, but instead she put the ball harmlessly just over the crossbar. From there, the Blue Devils had only a handful of good looks in the rest of the first, most of them coming as the clock rolled toward halftime. But, despite a few looks from both sophomore Mackenzie Pluck and junior Tess Boade, the Blue Devils and Badgers went into the locker room tied at 0-0, a familiar result for the Blue Devils.
“We’re the best when we get that first goal, like anybody,” said Church. “Nothing radically crazy there. Were the best when we score the first goal, we just couldn’t find that first goal, especially that one in the first half which was a really good opportunity.”
Coming out of the locker room, the Blue Devils immediately looked more aggressive and started to show an offensive rhythm they simply hadn’t been able to find for much of the first half. Less than three minutes into the half, Duke had already registered two shots, the same number they’d registered in all of the first half. Senior Ella Stevens continued to pass the long ball down the field and it felt like only a matter of time before they found that go-ahead goal.
And in the 76th minute it looked like they would have their chance. Pluck was fouled just outside the 18-yard box and Stevens stepped up to take the free kick and junior Lily Nabet got on the end of it to redirect it into the goal. But, as was the result for the whole night, Wisconsin goalkeeper Jordyn Bloomer wasn’t going to let it get past her. The Badgers put together a quick run up the field and scored one of the more bewildering goals the Blue Devils have given up all season. Wisconsin’s leading scorer, senior Dani Rhodes, had the ball and was surrounded by Blue Devils. Falling down she put just enough on the ball and it rolled into the side netting, just out of the reach of Heinsohn.
“We had them covered well,” said Church. “She [Rhodes] did a good job to kind of fake one way and then spin out and go the other side, as she was falling down, she kinda toe-poked it and it just found the corner. It was a little bit of slow motion, a lot of bodies laying around. I had a hard time seeing the ball go in and was shocked when I heard the reaction of everybody and saw our reaction too that the ball had actually gone in the goal.”
Now it was Duke playing from behind, with less than 15 minutes left in their season unless they were able to find an equalizer. That equalizer never came. A handful of opportunities presented themselves in the final minutes, including a Boade pass that was just a little too far out of Pluck’s reach and a chaotic scrum for the ball in the closing seconds but, as was so often the case for the Blue Devils this year, they just weren’t able to convert on their opportunities and time ran out on their season, sending them on their way back to Durham.
What looked to be a promising season for Duke ended after much confusion, injuries, and more draws than they had seen before in school history. It was the Blue Devils' first time not breaking the ten-win mark since 2014, a year when they didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. They’ll be losing one of the greatest players in Duke women’s soccer history this year in Ella Stevens but will have a strong senior presence on the field next year, along with several players coming back from injury, making next season’s Blue Devils a force to be reckoned with.
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“She’s [Ella Stevens] just been a great, great leader for us on the field and off the field all year-long and she's been very consistent. She's a big-time player and person and we’ll miss her as a person and player in our program. [But] if anything makes me smile a little right now, it’s that a lot of our players grew, especially that senior class [of 2021], they grew. We went out earlier than we have the last four or five years and I hope this keeps fueling the fire. We got to better, we gotta get ourselves technically better, we got to work on final-third play all during the spring and next year but we have the ability to have a really, really good team next year. I think we have a [great] ability to bounce back and have a great year.”