A total of 113 days passed between Duke's fall finale and its spring opener, the longest gap between games in the same season in team history. If that meant they were supposed to struggle in their return, though, the Blue Devils didn’t get the memo.
A four-month break made little difference to No. 5 Duke, which beat UNC-Wilmington 3-0 at UNCW Soccer Stadium Saturday. Attacking midfielder Tess Boade and centre back Caitlin Cosme each had a goal and an assist, and striker Grace Watkins netted her first career goal, as the team jumped to an early lead and never looked troubled.
“Once you score that first goal, it's a real burden that's lifted from your shoulders—I think you can play much [more free] and play easier that way,” head coach Robbie Church said. “I thought we had a little nerves the first 15 minutes of the game, and I thought it's just been a little while since we played. But then I thought we started to play faster as the game went on in the first half. And then, I thought the last 20 minutes of the first half, we played really well.”
The Seahawks (2-2) are no pushover of a mid-major team. They opened their season with an overtime loss to N.C. State, a mid-pack ACC team, and had just come off a 5-0 beatdown of Coastal Carolina, Duke’s next opponent.
“It is a tricky game. This is one I haven't slept too good this week about, and probably won't sleep too well tonight,” Church told The Chronicle before the contest.
Whether he was exaggerating or not, the Blue Devils (8-4-2) gave no cause for concern. Playing their first game in a new 4-4-2 box, a formation made to get more playing time for their holding midfielders at the expense of the lighter striker rotation, the team looked quite clean as they rang in the spring portion of their season.
This is, of course, the first time in program history that Duke is playing meaningful games in the springtime. A squad used to the games getting colder and longer as the season progresses is watching as those seasonal trends are reversed, as freshmen aren’t so fresh and seniors’ goodbyes are postponed. And the Blue Devils have just five total spring games to make sure they adjust before the NCAA tournament.
“It is definitely a different schedule than we've ever had before. And especially as a senior, usually this is when we start [leaving] the team, and we're far away into adulthood. But obviously, things have changed, and COVID has made it such that this is the longest season we've ever had,” Boade said. “So I think, in one sense, we have a leg up on a lot of other conferences and teams, because we had a whole season under our belts in the fall…. And I think that that's a confidence that we're gonna run with throughout the spring, just knowing we've played together for nine months now.”
How Duke’s adjustments, both to the spring and to the new scheme, pan out could be anyone’s guess. Six Blue Devils saw time off the bench, a bit more than the team’s usual subs from the fall. Emily Royson, a fall starter at wingback, has been pushed to the bench as Delaney Graham moves from winger back to her natural wingback position. Royson came off the bench in the waning minutes of garbage time against the Seahawks. Marykate McGuire, starter of 29 games over the past two years at striker, was the first sub.
Point being, there’s really no telling exactly how Duke’s talent will show out this spring. And with starting winger Mackenzie Pluck out for a short time with a sprained ankle sustained in the 22nd minute Saturday, there’s going to be a bit more stress on these rotations to adjust quickly.
“She's not hurt bad, she just sprained her ankle,” Church said of Pluck. “And she was playing really well. But she could have played if we needed her to play, but we need her 100% healthy. So she'll be back.”
The Blue Devils will open their home spring slate against Coastal Carolina this coming Sunday.
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