Mackenzie Pluck had been here before.
She was here in Tallahassee, Fla. last October, when she had two one-on-one opportunities to put Duke ahead of No. 1 Florida State, and missed both.
She was right here in Koskinen Stadium nearly two years ago, when her then-career-high three points and three shots on goal carried the Blue Devils over No. 19 Santa Clara—though her two missed second-half chances and Duke allowing two goals meant an uncomfortable overtime win.
Mackenzie Pluck had been here before, and now, past was prologue.
Her critical shot late in a tie game against No. 19 Washington Sunday was once again stopped by a diving goalie, but this time Pluck popped right back up, pulling the ball with her into open turf. And she netted the shot for the game-winner to lift No. 6 Duke past the Huskies 2-1 in Koskinen Staidum.
“Mac Pluck's a senior. This is how she needs to play. She has a great deal of talent, and we need her to play like this,” head coach Robbie Church said. “We need her to be consistent—play game-in, game-out like this. Right now she is playing at a very, very high level. And we're going to need that all year and she'll be there for us all year. We're very, very happy [with] where she is. She's in a good place, and helps scoring goals and creating goals with it too, and that's her job.”
Pluck recorded three points and a career-high five shots on goal on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, overcoming some uncharacteristically spotty play from the Blue Devils. Duke allowed a few possessions to bounce around its box, leading to a couple tough saves for goalie Ruthie Jones and a Husky goal out of her reach that split the Blue Devil centre backs. And its offense struggled to convert its first-half looks.
But while those instances showed that Duke (2-0-0) still has some polishing to do, the other 90 percent of the game couldn’t have been more promising. And front and center was Pluck.
“I think just [my] confidence in general [has changed],” Pluck said. “I think at the end of last year, I was starting to feel it, but then we ended. And then the summer, I just had time to really work on my own. Normally the spring is the time for that, and we didn't have that, so this summer I was just building confidence—and it's my last year, I wanna kill it.”
There were two-and-a-half minutes left in regulation at a 1-1 score when Pluck noticed Washington’s back line had crept upfield without a left full back, leaving the inside forward/striker next to the Huskies’ last centre back just beyond the penalty arc. She had to take advantage. Pluck called for a through pass, received it perfectly halfway up the box from striker Michelle Cooper and slid into it right as goalkeeper Olivia Sekany dove to save. And then she got her game-winner.
Sunday's performance followed a one-goal, three-shots-on-goal performance against Arkansas, and that match against Washinton (0-2-0) marked the second time in four days that she was one of the best and most active players on the field throughout the match, and her two senior-season games form the most impressive two-game stretch of her collegiate career.
That’s starting to be a bit of a theme with these Blue Devils: big contributions from less-established sources. And despite that, the production looks sustainable.
If Duke’s most impressive player through its opening weekend wasn’t Pluck, it was Cooper. The No. 18 freshman has overshadowed even TopDrawerSoccer’s No. 10 player in the country —deep-lying playmaker Sophie Jones—to the tune of 11 shots, with five on goal and a couple of others barely glancing off the posts, while becoming the seventh Blue Devil to score in each of her first two career starts. The shots and passes she’s attempting haven’t even been attempted, let alone nearly connected, by any Duke player since Kayla McCoy or Imani Dorsey.
“I think the quickness of our two front runners, especially Mac Pluck and Michelle, their movements off the ball caused some troubles—it did on the last goal; the ability to beat 'em with dribble,” Church said. “We have a number of people who can beat players off the dribble—Tess [Boade], we bring Grace [Watkins] in. A number of our players have the ability to break people down off the dribble; and then the movement off the ball, the slashing forward runs, and us finding the seams to play the ball. So I think that gave [Washington] a lot of trouble. That's a hard formula. If you get that continuing—good timing on the runs, being able to slash the balls, making slashing runs, and delivering at the right pace at the right time—it's gonna give anybody a really hard time.”
That talent, execution, and depth on the front line is something Duke hasn’t had since 2017. The Blue Devils have been lockdown defensively for years, but the offense has rarely been able to put itself in a position to actually take advantage of that. Though the current backline—Emily Royson, Caitlin Cosme, and Katie Groff—have only now played 180 minutes of regulation, 2020’s leading scorer (Olivia Migli) is playing wing back for the first time, and Sophie Jones is playing almost a whole line deeper than she has in the past, Duke’s play outside their moments of sloppiness was nearly impeccable.
If the Blue Devil forwards can prove their breakouts while polishing their chemistry, while the backline grows its coordination and the veterans adjust to new assignments, then the 70-plus minutes for which Duke commanded Washington will be only a harbinger of historical play.
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