After a regular season full of uncertainty and anxiety, the Blue Devils have finally reached the postseason, where they look to get themselves out of the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament for the first time since 2017.
Duke looks primed to do just that as it prepares to take on Clemson Tuesday at 3 p.m. in Cary, N.C. The fifth-seeded Blue Devils may be the lower seed against the fourth-seeded Tigers, but that’s no reason to discount them. Clemson enters the matchup fresh off a tough loss to Florida State, whereas Duke is coming off a confidence-building win against Miami, with one victory against Clemson already under its belt this season.
Despite the reasons for confidence, Blue Devil head coach Robbie Church is singularly focused on the match at hand, realizing that its implications extend beyond who advances to the next round of the ACC tournament.
“This game may have huge ramifications for the NCAA tournament in April, which is kind of crazy to think that this game could affect what happens in April, but it really could,” Church said. “If Clemson beats us, now we're both 1-1 [against each other], but if we beat Clemson, we won two games head-to-head. So I think that's a really big plus for the at-large [bid]. Now, what we plan on doing is win the tournament and get the automatic—that's our goal, is to get the automatic.”
While getting the automatic bid is certainly a possibility for the Blue Devils this season, it won’t be an easy task and would be a historic moment for the program. Last year, Duke was decimated by injuries and fatigued from an avalanche of draws, leading to a 1-0 loss to Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals. The year before that, a talented Duke team, seeded No. 2 in the conference tournament, suffered a confounding quarterfinal loss to seventh-seeded Florida State. And the year prior, with one of the most talented college women’s soccer squads ever, the Blue Devils made it to the finals only to lose to North Carolina.
That 2017 campaign marked the first time since 2000 that Duke had made it to the ACC Championship Game, and looked to be its best chance of taking home the title for the very first time. But, for all the talent that has graced the Blue Devil roster in the past three decades, they simply haven’t been able to string together three wins when they’ve needed to the most.
However, with a healthy roster, a wealth of experience on the upperclassmen side and a wealth of talent on the underclassmen side, Duke is positioned to make history amidst a historic season.
A hallmark of the team this season has been change and flexibility, not only due to These Uncertain Times, but because the roster has allowed for so much flexibility in the lineup. We may not know exactly how the lineup will shake out for this match, but we do know the criteria that Church has set: a singular focus on winning.
“The regular season and the tournament is a whole different mindset,” Church said. “Sometimes you want to play players because you need them to have confidence. Sometimes you play players for other reasons. Now, in the tournament, you got to play the players that are gonna win games. Our goal is to advance to Friday—that's our only goal. What's in play is: How do we win the game? How do we get to play another game in our season? How do we get to stay together and be together for another day? That's our sole goal.”
And with such a singular focus, expect the Blue Devils to emphasize what they do best: defend. With a defensive unit led by women’s soccer legend Carla Overbeck, Duke has given up just three goals in its last seven games, and never more than one in a single match during that stretch. But you can’t win in the ACC tournament without a little offense, as the Blue Devils are all too familiar—their last three losses in the tournament all finished 1-0 in the opponent's favor.
While no one on the team has established themselves as the main offensive force, look for freshman Olivia Migli to have an impact in this matchup. In the Blue Devils' victory against the Tigers earlier this season, Migli was the lone goal-scorer. And in Duke’s most recent win against Miami, Migli scored twice, giving her a team-high four goals for the season.
But no matter how the tournament shakes out, the Blue Devils have a lot to be proud of. They’ve stayed healthy, on and off the field (which is tough to do in any season, especially given Duke’s injury luck in previous years, but especially tough during a global pandemic). They’ve established themselves as one of the top defenses in the nation. Their offense has improved. Their young talent is flourishing and only looks to get better. So come spring season, however that may look, Duke will be ready.
“Everybody needs to celebrate a little bit that we have made it to the ACC tournament,” Church said. “I think it is absolutely a huge, huge thing. We're all winners to be able to get to this point in what has been such a challenging year in so many different ways. I'm just really, really proud of the girls, of the year that we've had on the field, off the field, and really looking forward to playing in the ACC tournament.”
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