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Despite second loss to North Carolina, Duke women's soccer continues to impress in difficult season

<p>Duke battled once again, but remain winless against North Carolina since 2015.</p>

Duke battled once again, but remain winless against North Carolina since 2015.

CHAPEL HILL—No matter how many times you’re told “carpe diem,” it’s still difficult to live in the moment.

Such is the case for Duke, which has fought top-ranked North Carolina to near-victory twice this season but is still yet to put together 90 continuous high-quality minutes against the Tar Heels. The fourth-ranked Blue Devils' 1-0 loss at Dorrance Field in Chapel Hill Friday was simply a duplicate of their first match against their Tobacco Road rivals Sept. 27, in which Duke looked promising but just couldn’t finish. 

The lone goal Friday came in the 63rd minute, though the possession started just like any other. North Carolina tried a drive, but Duke's indomitable back line left little space and forced the ball out past the upper corner of the box. Just like any other possession, the Tar Heel winger tried to face up and force a tough shot. This time, however, Duke wing back Emily Royson didn't completely close out on left winger Rachel Jones, who laced a pass right in front of the goal. 

Just like any other possession, the Blue Devils got to it first, but redshirt senior wing back Mia Gyau couldn't handle the pass, instead deflecting it for an own-goal. It marked the second time this season that a Duke own-goal opened up the scoring against North Carolina.

“I think we have to look at it, and look at our play, as opposed to the result, and see the process of the game and how we finished at the end,” senior centre back Taylor Mitchell said. “We have seen improvements throughout the game, but we need to start off really strong, as opposed to just seeing the result at the end of the game.”

Despite all that, and despite head coach Robbie Church’s disappointment with the contest, Friday was a day for celebration for the Blue Devils (5-2-2). This is arguably the first time since 2017 that Duke has truly competed with North Carolina (7-0) across both of their rivalry matchups, and the first time since then that the Blue Devils had the best player on the field. This also marks the first top-tier defense that the Blue Devil offense has looked formidable against this season.

Overall, Friday's game was an instant classic, a match that not only continues to establish the ACC as the premier conference in women’s soccer, but perches Duke adjacent to its apex.

And if none of that was enough, this was the first time the Blue Devils have seen their families on the sideline all season.

“I was really looking forward to seeing [Mia],” said Phillip Gyau, Mia's father and head coach of Howard's men's soccer team. “This time calls for [social distancing and precautions], so we can’t be around. But to just hear that we could come and watch this game, I was elated, so I jumped at it right away.”

For close to two hours Friday night, Duke players stood within shouting distance of their families, close enough to smile and laugh and wave. Or, in the case of Mitchell’s mother, try to.

“I tried [waving to Taylor]. She didn’t see us until they were getting ready to start,” Shelle Mitchell said. “I’m like, ‘Come on! You knew I was gonna be here!'.... So when she did come back, when they started, she looked up and saw us…. She texted me before the game, and said, 'Mom, I’m so excited that you guys get to come and see me.' This is really special, because it’s almost kind of like my Senior Night.”

With all the precautions Duke has been taking—precautions Phillip Gyau acclaimed—Shelle Mitchell and her husband William hadn’t seen their daughter since her junior year, which made Friday all the more special. For at least one match, it almost seemed like any other game night, and everyone made sure to take advantage of that moment.

That has to be the focus for the Blue Devils—they must carpe diem.

This is the most talented Duke team in recent years, and one with a serious shot at a national title if it can continue its current play into a spring season. Every time the Blue Devils step on the field, they’re making significant progress either toward or away from the College Cup. Just belonging on the same field as North Carolina is an announcement that they're up to the challenge.

But you can’t think about all that when you’re on the field. You have to live completely in the moment, or you’ll disconnect and play without urgency, as Duke did in the first half Friday. If These Uncertain Times have instilled anything, it’s that the future is never a given. It’s never a given not only because of sickness, but in the Blue Devils’ case, it’s not given because that’s simply the cruelty of collegiate soccer. No matter how badly they want to stick together, teams can never run it back. The same sense of urgency that Duke needs to win games against the North Carolinas of the country is the sense of general urgency it needs in taking advantage of the current roster.

“I think we got a great group,” Church said. “That’s why it’s so hard, those first 45 minutes that we didn’t play up to our level. We have to believe in ourselves. We’re really, really good…. We have to be brave out there and embrace the game.”

It’s incredible how well the Blue Devils have done in spite of everything around them. Win or lose, the fact that they’re playing at such a high level in these trying times, night-in and night-out, is remarkable, and it’s easy for spectators to lose sight of that. Living in the moment right now is a nearly impossible task, and their playing with such urgency is praiseworthy all for itself.

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