CARY, N.C.—For 110 minutes, No. 9-seed Duke held top-ranked Florida State without a goal—the only team in the country to accomplish that feat all season.
But it wasn’t enough to give the Blue Devils the win.
Duke fell to the Seminoles 5-3 in penalty kicks Sunday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., ending the longest season in program history, which spanned 242 days between the first and last match of the season and extended across three different seasons of weather. After coming out of the gates aggressive, Duke fell into a comfortable defensive scheme, mainly looking to limit Florida State’s opportunities rather than generate its own and, for much of the match, it looked like a foregone conclusion that this game would become the ninth match decided by penalties in this year’s Women’s Soccer Championships. And it was.
“I'm just so proud of this team,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “It's been quite a year. There's never been a year like this. And so starting here, in July, ending on May 9, ending on penalty kicks to the number one team—one of the best teams it's ever been in this conference. The girls they just gave everything; not only the people on the field, but the people on the sidelines. There was such a connection with this group, and a commitment with this group. I'm just so proud to be their coach. They're unbelievable.”
Heading into penalties, despite what the possession clock may indicate, the Blue Devils had reason to be confident. After all, they had held the usually high-powered offense of Florida State, which averages just over three goals per game, to a scoreless draw, despite the Seminoles holding possession for 74% of the game. Furthermore, Duke goalkeeper Ruthie Jones had made a career-high eight saves through regulation and the two overtime periods. But for many of the Blue Devils, this was the first time they’d ever played penalties in college, and it marked the first time Duke had decided a game on penalties since its loss to UCLA in the 2017 College Cup Semifinals.
And just as quickly as Duke’s chances of winning rose, they fell. The Seminoles kicked off penalties with an easy conversion and on Duke’s first attempt, senior defender Taylor Mitchell, whose defensive efforts throughout the game had allowed the Blue Devils to make it to penalties in the first place, had her attempt blocked by Florida State goalkeeper Cristina Roque. From there, all the Seminoles had to do was convert the rest of their attempts and they did just that, advancing to the College Cup Semifinals 5-3 on penalties.
“I thought we did a really good job in penalties—we made three of four,” Church said. “Unfortunately, Taylor Mitchell, who had an unbelievable great game, really feels like she lost the game. She didn’t lose the game. She was unbelievable in the field out there. So it's not her, but it puts all that pressure on these young kids. It's a tough one. It's just tough to take that first one. You always want to be the first kicker, and they won the toss. So they put the pressure on us.”
“We didn’t lose the game; we just didn’t advance on penalty kicks,” Church added.
Early in the match, the Blue Devils came out of the gate with some aggression, more resembling the offensive strategy from their ACC semifinal loss to Florida State than their meetup in the regular season. And it nearly paid off, despite the box score not listing any shots on goal for Duke. Less than two minutes in, junior forward Mackenzie Pluck sent a shot toward the Seminole goal, but it went wide. Five minutes later, rather than taking the shot herself, Pluck sent in a pass that found fellow junior Delaney Graham in stride, but Graham’s shot went wide left, and the Blue Devils never got off another shot.
The next 103 minutes were a Duke masterclass in defense, as the Blue Devils stayed on their own half of the field for much of the time, holding the Seminoles to 14 shots and eight shots on goal, the majority of which didn’t require much movement from Ruthie Jones. Florida State is known for its set pieces, but none of its nine corners led to shots that found the back of the net.
The Seminoles’ best opportunity came in the first sudden-death overtime period, after a service from the side of the 18-yard box found Florida State’s Emily Madril, who was faced with a nearly wide-open goal. But she sent it too high, and while the Seminoles had a few more shots and set pieces between the rest of the first overtime and the second overtime period, none really came close to securing them the win.
“Defensively, we just wanted to try to keep them in central areas,” Church said. “We wanted them to play on the outside, and not be able to combine—they do such a great job of combinations in front of the goal, building out and then leading to a shot inside. We'd like to get some people more forward. But we had to make a decision: the weather, three games in eight days. There were a lot of tired legs out there as well. So it was hard to go forward, and then get ourselves back. So you kind of make a decision: ‘What are you going to do?’”
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And so, with Duke’s loss, comes the beginning of an incredibly short offseason, as the team usually begins practicing for the upcoming season in July. But, between the experience of this game and season, the extra season of eligibility for all players and the likely return of crowds, you can be sure that the Blue Devils will come into next season more motivated than ever.
“This doesn't leave a good taste in my mouth,” Ruthie Jones said. “Moving forward with future teams in this fall, in the coming years, having had this experience—a penalty shootout in the Elite Eight at the national championship tournament—it's huge. It'll be huge for me, coming into the next one. Because we don't want it to end like this again, and it won't.”