Amidst all the negatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been spots of light. And all the bad makes holding onto those bright spots all the more important.
Duke women’s soccer was one of those bright spots. The Blue Devils endured a season unlike any other, doing it just for the love of the game. From the opening kickoff of the first game September 10 to the final penalty in the Blue Devils' NCAA tournament run, 242 days elapsed—a long time in itself. But their season truly began July 21, when the team arrived back on campus.
A changed world
Let me set the scene: Friday, March 6, 2020, the beginning of Duke’s spring break. No one could have guessed what was to come.
On March 10, Duke suspended in-person classes and extended spring break by a week. Two days later, all athletic activities were suspended and all residential activities were cancelled. And March 17, the ACC cancelled all athletic competitions and practices. In just one week, everything had changed.
“When we got the email from President Price [that] we're gonna have another week of spring break, everybody was like, ‘Oh, that's great. Like, we'll just come back in another week,’” junior Marykate McGuire said in an interview with The Chronicle. “And then once we got the notification that spring sports were canceled we were like, ‘Oh no, this is serious—we're not actually going to come back.’ It was kind of surreal.”
McGuire was a sophomore at the time, but current Duke players weren’t the only ones affected, with the incoming first-year class also seeing its world turned upside down.
For freshman Olivia Migli, who had committed to Duke when she was a freshman in high school, what awaited her was drastically different from what she had been looking forward to for most of her high school career.
“When a lot of things were still up in the air, there was a lot of anxiety,” Migli told The Chronicle. “I was really excited to get to college and play the game, which I've been waiting for since freshman year when I committed. So there was a long build up for that. And then when COVID had hit, there was shock and anxiety about ‘would we be able to play, would we not?’”
“When we heard that the ACC would still go on and play in the fall, there was a lot of excitement about that,” Migli added. “But still a lot of anxiety that COVID could come in and ruin your season with positive tests.”
Into the unknown
Fast forward a few months and we find ourselves in July. On the 21st, the team arrived back on campus for the first time since March, albeit a very different campus from the one it had left— something that was obvious right from the beginning.
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The players pulled up to Blue Devil Tower, the coaching staff outside and in masks, waving to them as they parked and got out of their cars. But the catching up would have to wait; before they could do anything else, the team had to get COVID tested—the first of many.
The test by itself wasn’t enough to get going. Before the team could get back into practice, they had a two-week acclimation period living in the Washington Duke Inn, which normally doesn't house students. In that span, the Blue Devils completed the required COVID-19 quarantine protocol and worked with the trainers and strength coaches, but they could not begin regular team training until August 4.
On August 4, the team was able to have its first training. In a typical season, games would begin shortly thereafter, usually beginning in mid-August.
But this season, the Blue Devils weren’t slated to begin their season until an away contest against Wake Forest September 10. On the one hand, it gave the team a ton of time to practice; on the other, that was a lot of time for things to go wrong.
“We would just almost count our blessings after every day of training: ‘OK, we got another training in; we’re still playing soccer,’” Duke head coach Robbie Church told The Chronicle. “We felt like, ‘OK, we got to train again today. Hopefully we get one in tomorrow.’ And that's all it was—hopefully we get one in tomorrow.”
After the acclimation period, the players moved out of the Washington Duke Inn and into their permanent (or what they thought were their permanent) residences. The upperclassmen moved right to off-campus living, but the underclassmen moved three different times in those first few weeks before finally settling into the Swift Apartments.
The team made it through the acclimation period and an exceptionally long preseason, and found itself in September with its first game of the season finally right around the corner.
Most games against Wake Forest aren't of particular importance—this one was an exception. It marked the first time in six months that any Blue Devils from any sport participated in official collegiate competition.
Duke women’s soccer was back.
“It was a really big moment and it was so special, even though it was different,” McGuire said about that first game back. “When you got to step on the field and actually get to play for the first time, it was so exciting, because we never thought, honestly, it was gonna happen.”
A week after their first game, the Blue Devils made their return home for a Thursday evening matchup with Virginia, marking the first time since March 11 that any Duke team played on its home field.
“Once we got through the first weekend and we looked around and everybody was playing their games it was like, ‘OK, this is going to happen.’ Let's be ready to play this game against [North] Carolina. Let's be ready to play this game, because it's going to happen now, unless something crazy [happens],” Church said.
Duke made it through its fall slate of regular season games. Up next was the ACC tournament, where it took down Clemson in the quarterfinals before losing to Florida State in the semis. Normally soon after the conclusion of the ACC tournament would be the NCAA tournament, but this year all fall sports (excluding football) had their championships moved to the spring, so for the time being, all the team could do was wait.
Not done yet
Some teams that played in the fall made the decision to forgo playing in the spring, at least until the NCAA tournament. But the Blue Devils, knowing that a deep NCAA tournament run was their goal, wanted to get back in action.
“We had aspirations of winning a national championship and we knew it was gonna be hard,” Church said. “And we knew we had to get better. So that carried us over to ‘let's play in the spring.’”
The team arrived back on campus in January, its next game not until March 6, giving the players plenty of time to get back into the groove of things after nearly two months away. And when March 6 finally rolled around, the Blue Devils took a weekend trip down to UNC Wilmington and cruised to a 3-0 win.
The Blue Devils were back once again.
All that was left was the very thing everyone had been working toward for the past 10 months—the NCAA tournament.
On April 19, the Blue Devils received their seed, the ninth overall, giving them a first-round bye and landing their first tournament game May 1.
For the team, making it to that point justified what it had been through in the past year.
“It's kind of crazy just how much time and how many different things we had to do, and all the obstacles we had to face,” Migli said. “And it came down to a single moment. It felt surreal to finally just have that [and] know we're going to the tournament. We didn't even know if there was going to be a tournament in the fall.”
After winning their first two NCAA tournament games, the Blue Devils advanced to the Elite Eight and found themselves playing Florida State for the third time that season.
Unfortunately, an incredible gameplan wasn’t enough to take down the Seminoles, as the Blue Devils saw their season end in penalty kicks May 9.
And so, 293 days after the team had set foot on campus July 21, a season unlike any other was finally over. It may not have ended the way the team wanted, but that only serves as motivation going forward.
Reflecting and looking forward
They might make it look easy on the field but athletes struggle too, especially amid a pandemic.
For Migli, when times got tough, she’d give her mom a call. For McGuire, she would lean on her teammates. Facing a challenge invites growth and both feel that they have grown a lot in the past year. With most social life on standby, a normally close team got even closer and after a tough year, there was a lot for Duke to be proud of.
“I think I'm most proud of my team for just showing up every day,” Migli said. “We all showed up every day, ready to play. And I'm proud of myself for just making it through.”
And so here’s to a more normal season for everyone: to the fans, a likely return to Koskinen Stadium; to the coaches, the chance to talk the team sans masks; to the team, a return to pre-pandemic routines; to McGuire, the feeling of walking into Koskinen with fans in the stands; and to Migli and all the other sophomores, the chance to have the true college experience they were robbed of this past season.