What is the point of trying your hardest if you can never quite reach your goal? Why push the boulder up the hill if it’s always going to come rolling back down?
Those are the questions Duke women's soccer continues to face, an over-dramatization of the worries head coach Robbie Church has had to assuage in his team for years.
The fifth-ranked Blue Devils were once again on the forefront of the national stage Thursday afternoon in Tallahassee, Fla., their match against No. 2 Florida State one of the most anticipated of the year. Both teams flashed their championship-level potential while failing to get into much of a groove on either end, trading near misses for almost 90 minutes.
Almost 90 minutes. With 20 seconds on the clock, Florida State attacking mid Yujie Zhao, one of the best players in the country, served a corner kick that missed its near-post target and was deflected forward by Blue Devil Sydney Simmons. The ball bounced to Jaelin Howell, a top defensive mid for the Seminoles, who spun and slipped a shot through the only path with any semblance of daylight to net the game’s first goal with just 14 seconds left, giving Florida State the 1-0 win.
“This is a really tough group. They're mentally tough, and so they're frustrated, they're hurt right now,” Church said. “I'm just so torn for the players, because they worked so hard for two games in a row against two of the best teams in the country, and on their own fields, and we've been step for step with them the whole time…. It was brutal.”
It might be fair to say that Simmons could’ve better corralled the ball, or that Maggie Graham, marking Howell, should’ve covered her spin more tightly. Or that Olivia Migli could’ve reacted quicker to help on Howell, or that Caitlin Cosme should’ve slid to her left sooner, or that Royson could’ve been more prepared to raise a leg to block. That corner wouldn’t even have happened if Royson had let the shot that set it up trickle slowly out of bounds beside the goal—there was seemingly no chance of it netting and no reason to rush the clearance, right?
But we’re talking about elite players making infinitesimal adjustments to prevent a perfect goal from a Florida State defender who was falling over as the ball left her foot. None of which would have mattered if Duke (5-3-2, 3-2-2 in the ACC) had converted on either of the two one-on-one first-half opportunities for striker Mackenzie Pluck. In 95 percent of universes, Pluck has downed Florida State (7-0, 7-0) with a multi-goal game. This just happened to be the universe where the chip shot was too high and the inside shot went off her spikes.
Staring down a landmark win, generating golden opportunities, fighting at the highest level against the best competition, and none of it matters. That has so often been the case for the Blue Devils.
Sometime around 2003 or 2004, Church clearly made a deal with the devil that Duke would be blessed with talent and national contention annually but would never seem to be able to truly reach the soccer apex.
Today, or last Friday at North Carolina, could’ve been Church’s 250th win at Duke. It could’ve been the win to convince the United Soccer Coaches Poll to finally give the Blue Devils their rightful top-three ranking. It should've essentially clinched the three-seed in the ACC tournament, which likely would’ve let them avoid Virginia and Clemson.
Instead, the devil reaps his rewards yet again.
The team’s loaded in 2011? Well it can go to the College Cup final, but it’s going to miss two wide-open shots and lose to Stanford on a twice-recovered crosser. Got a promising team in 2015, a year after missing the NCAA tournament entirely? Go ahead and exorcise its Stanford demons in the NCAA quarterfinals before another nail-biting loss in the College Cup final, this time to Penn State. That squad will grow into one of the best teams in collegiate soccer history in 2017? That’ll translate to winning 90 percent of its games, but not the ACC tournament, before a regulation shutout and loss in penalties to UCLA in the College Cup semifinals.
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And in those years, the teams’ collective record against North Carolina would be 1-3.
Being a Blue Devil is not quite Sisyphian, because someday that boulder will make it atop the hill. But you’ll never know if that day is today until you start rolling.