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Column: Math sucks, especially for Duke women's soccer

Duke just couldn't convert on the opportunities it had Friday against Florida State.
Duke just couldn't convert on the opportunities it had Friday against Florida State.

CARY, N.C.—Duke’s math department is notorious among undergraduates, from the difficulty of its curricula to the slog of its courses’ workloads. The Blue Devils experienced the pain of Duke Math Friday evening.

The Blue Devils’ fall season ended in the ACC tournament semifinals with a 4-0 loss to Florida State. It was Duke's worst shutout loss since 2009 against Maryland, despite the fact that the Blue Devils actually took more shots on goal than the Seminoles and had multiple free kicks right outside the box. Friday night, the numbers just didn't work out for Duke.

The relationship between out-shooting opponents and scoring goals/winning is tenuous at best, but there’s a fairly clear, if slight, correlation between out-shooting opponents on goal and scoring/winning.

The point is that math is cruel. For everyone at Duke, whether they’re a math major, engineering student, soccer player or combination of the three, math is a cruel and unforgiving mistress. No amount of past performance or instruction is adequate preparation for the difficulty of math at Duke, be it abstract algebra or scoring goals. You can do everything you’re supposed to and still come up short.

Such is the case in sports. Baseball is famous for its lucky draws, college football is especially vulnerable to the random bounce of an oblong ball and soccer is a sport that is played in 90-minute-long stints and yet can still decided by the quality of a few mis-cut blades of grass that render all stats irrelevant. There’s a reason wins can seem certain but sit at 99 percent win expectancy—some games have to be that one percent. Today, you could say that was Duke, even with the lopsided final score.

To be fair, the Blue Devils have been on the flip side of this sort of thing many times this season. They were roundly outshot and out-corner-kicked by both Clemson and Virginia in their regular-season meetings, yet escaped those games with a win and a draw, respectively. It’s hard to say Duke has gotten the short end of the stick in totality.

This is a case where it’s crucial to have perspective. No one lucks out 100 percent of the time, but if you’re never striking gold, perhaps you should consider changing something. If you're a math major that can’t seem to pass linear algebra and multivariable calculus, maybe you should reconsider your approach in the classroom. Similarly, if you're a soccer team that can’t seem to convert shots into goals at a decent rate, maybe you should reconsider your approach on the pitch.

See, there’s generally decent explanations for poor luck in sports. In baseball, bad luck for pitchers usually results from poor defensive play or positioning. In football, turnovers can throw everything out of whack. In soccer, shot quality paints a much more colorful story than shot quantity.

I wrote in early October that Duke’s offense would soon take flight behind development on the front line, since its base formation was generating great advantages for the attack. That hasn’t happened yet, for a number of reasons: none of the young forwards have rapidly grown into stars; the Blue Devils are used to a lot of their offense coming from two- or three-man counters, which reduce the most significant advantage of Duke’s numbers advantage; few of the Blue Devils are especially great at finishing. 

Head coach Robbie Church has hammered that last point in particular throughout the season. He emphasized it after the tie against Wake Forest, following the Sept. 27 loss to North Carolina and before and after this latest match against Florida State.

It is fair, though, to expect Duke’s younger players to develop into the finishers the team needs. They’re still teenagers and could develop into anything. But come the spring, when some kind of season and an NCAA tournament will take place, something’s got to give.

“We learned that when you get to this level—hopefully we can make the NCAA tournament—and once we get there, we realize, 'Hey, this level is going to go up. We've got to be better. We got to execute better. We got to score goals,'” Church said. “The feeling that we have now is obviously a bad feeling. But this team has been phenomenal this year. They have worked extremely hard."

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