It’s been six months since any Blue Devils have participated in official collegiate competition.
But that prolonged drought will end Thursday at 7 p.m. when Duke women’s soccer opens regular-season play against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Demon Deacons may rank only ninth in the ACC Preseason Coaches Poll, but the Blue Devils will have other challenges to overcome when they take the field at Spry Stadium.
“It definitely will be strange, but we’re excited to have this opportunity,” head coach Robbie Church said of the uncertainties surrounding such an unprecedented start to fall sports. “I think it’s like everything else—you have to figure it out on the fly.”
Church is confident his coaching staff and players will be able to do just that.
The Blue Devils are quite optimistic about their offense, as they should be with major attacking forces returning to the pitch such as Mia Gyau and Sophie Jones, the latter taking home 2018 Gatorade High School National Player of the Year honors. Last year, the team struggled to capitalize on opportunities in the final third of the season without those two, ultimately causing a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the ACC tournament and second-round exit in the NCAA tournament. There is no doubt, however, that Duke has the talent and potential to go much further this fall, at least in the former.
But it’s not the time to be looking too far ahead, with the season-opener against Wake Forest providing Church and the Blue Devils their first real opportunity to evaluate themselves. Last September, Duke pulled off a dramatic 3-2 win against the Demon Deacons with Gyau coming through as the hero. On the other end, Wake Forest managed to total only five shots at Blue Devil goalie Brooke Heinsohn. However, Church is not hung up on last year's game.
“[Wake Forest] lost a number of players that graduated, some international players didn’t come back and we’re different too,” Church said. “So we’ll definitely look at the tape, but we just have to focus ourselves.”
Last year, Duke said goodbye to its second-winningest class in women’s soccer history but is saying hello to the No. 4 recruiting class in the country, headlined by 2019 Gatorade California High School Player of the Year Grace Watkins.
With such a strong incoming class, 10 out of 11 starters returning and prevalent senior leadership, a major change Church says to look out for starting Thursday is a constant substitution rotation off the bench.
“I think the thing that we’re excited about is that once we make subs you’re not going to see a real drop-off,” Church said. “I think we can go 6-7-8 deep [off the bench].”
This will be a major change for the Blue Devils in all positions, but especially offensively after an injury-stricken 2019 season.
All in all, things are looking extremely promising for Duke this fall, and Thursday will be its first true test.
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