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Offense stalls, defense shines as No. 7 Duke women’s soccer draws with Vanderbilt on Senior Day

Sophomore Ruthie Jones logged two saves against Vanderbilt.
Sophomore Ruthie Jones logged two saves against Vanderbilt.

For the first time since Oct. 15, 2020, the Blue Devils found themselves heading into extra time. 

But 20 extra minutes still weren't enough for Duke to break through. 

If the Blue Devils' win against N.C. State April 2 represented a return to normalcy because of the fans, then Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Vanderbilt represented a similar return to normalcy reminiscent of Duke's seven ties during the 2019 season. 

And, like so many of those draws, it was clear that the seventh-ranked Blue Devils were the better team against Vanderbilt, easily outshooting the 14th-ranked Commodores and creating opportunities across the field. But Duke’s front line remained cold despite the warm weather, none of them having scored since Duke’s blowout of Coastal Carolina March 17, and the Blue Devils’ seven seniors were left wanting more as they bid adieu to Koskinen Stadium.

“Senior Day is never easy,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “But this is a really great leadership group. They've been really really good on the field. They've been really good off the field. We wanted nothing more than to send them out with a win—we're disappointed. We're hurt because we didn't send them out with a win.”

In a year that’s been anything but normal (which at this point is becoming a tired cliche and for that, I apologize), a muted tie on Senior Day feels almost symbolic of the season. For a moment in the first overtime period, however, it looked as if the Blue Devils (10-5-3) were going to send their seniors off with a loss on Senior Day for the first time since 2012. 

The Commodores (9-5-1) sent a high shot toward the goal and sophomore goalkeeper Ruthie Jones was there to make the save, but found herself falling backward. So, in what Jones and her goalkeeper group have coined “an improv save," she caught the ball and threw it forward as she was falling across the goal line. From there, freshman Katie Groff, who played a career-high 94 minutes Sunday, cleared it, breathing a little bit of life back into Duke. 

But it wasn’t enough. The second overtime period came and went, with the Blue Devils managing three shots on goal, including a one-on-one between freshman Olivia Migli and the Vanderbilt goalkeeper that may well have been their best opportunity of the afternoon, but couldn't push one into the net.

When it was all said and done, a single play in overtime seemed emblematic of the entire day: an errant kick that petered down the field just fast enough to avoid the chasing Duke player, which finally rolled out just inches away from being a goal kick, instead becoming a difficult corner throw-in. Like everything else, it was close, but not close enough.

The Blue Devils haven't been known for their fast starts out of the gate, and that trend continued Sunday. Despite outshooting the Commodores 5-0 in the first half and tallying six corners, you’d be hard-pressed to find fans claiming that any of the shots should’ve led to goals. 

Now the second half—that was a different story.

Less than 10 minutes into the second period, senior Caitlin Cosme—a primarily defensive player who’s shown that she can get it done on the offensive end too—got her head on the ball off a service from classmate Tess Boade and put it just over the net. Eight minutes after that, Boade nearly did what Cosme wasn’t able to, finding herself a literal foot from giving Duke the edge. But here too, the final touch wasn’t there. 

“It was a good game and for the most part the game, we just really controlled the game,” Church said. “But we didn't execute in the final third—we broke down at the last ball, the shot was blocked, we shot balls [directly] at goalkeepers. It's a continuing theme a little bit, we got to continue to get better in that third. [In] the NCAA tournament, we have to be better in the final third—if not, we're not gonna advance.”

Luckily for the Blue Devil offense, their defense continued to stand strong. Vanderbilt, a usually prolific offensive team that hadn’t been held scoreless since an overtime loss to Tennessee Sept. 27, didn’t have a single shot in the first 72 minutes—the Commodores simply hadn’t been able to get close enough to Jones and the goal. 

“We did a lot of really good things on the defensive side,” Church said.  “Our whole team defended well, the front players really pressed and they defended, so it was a really great team defensive performance again—a second straight clean sheet.”

That all quickly changed in the 73rd minute, as Vanderbilt rattled off three shots in less than a minute of play, including a rebound opportunity that saw the right side of the Duke net wide open. But even when there was no defender on the ball, Vanderbilt failed to capitalize on what was its best opportunity yet.

With the regular season now concluded, all that’s left for the Blue Devils to do is await their NCAA tournament fate, with the seedings set to be released April 19. But you can be sure that after Sunday’s tough draw, Duke will be hungry for a win, a sentiment encapsulated by Ruthie Jones. 

“It’s all eyes on the next game,” said Jones. “This one could have left us a little frustrated, but we'll take a few days and then it's guns blazing at the next one. So I'm excited and I know we're all pumped to get a ticket to play in the tournament finally.”

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