For the first time in almost twenty years, the Blue Devils have commandeered the Commodores.
After reacquainting themselves with Vanderbilt last season, ending a 19-year gap between matchups but ending in a disappointing Senior Day tie, the Blue Devils came into this one looking to continue its hot start and get a bit of revenge.
And, while it took them the longest time of the season thus far to find their goal, once the fifth-ranked Blue Devils found it, they didn’t look back, taking down Vanderbilt 2-0 at Vanderbilt Soccer Complex for their fourth straight win and second-straight shutout.
“Today was a really big win for us,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “[Vanderbilt] played really well and really hard. We knew they would do that. And then we fought the elements and the weather. I mean, it [was] hot—it was vicious. We had a couple half chances in the first half, but [in the] second half we really clamped down—good runs off the ball, good movement off the ball. I thought we were a little bit more explosive, right outside the 18-yard area. I just could not be prouder of the girls.”
After a first half that seemed to have fallen into a gentle lull, with each team getting a couple looks at the other’s goal but neither finding that quality opportunity, it was clear coming into the second half that the Duke offense, which had been so dominant against Western Carolina just days ago, was in need of a spark.
And who better to deliver that spark than Duke’s breakout star through three games, freshman Michelle Cooper.
A little over seven minutes into the half, graduate student Tess Boade sent a cross into the box, looking like it was heading toward senior Mackenzie Pluck. But Pluck had two defenders on her and the ball bounced to the side, rolling toward the edge of the penalty-area. Cooper, who’s already done so much damage in the box this year, made a run toward the ball and was fouled as two Commodore defenders sandwiched her just inside the lines, handing the Blue Devils (4-0) their third penalty opportunity of the season.
Boade, who had started the whole sequence off, stepped up to the penalty spot and calmly fired a bullet to the top-right for her second goal of the season, both off penalties, with the first coming in Duke’s season opener.
“Penalties tell you a couple things—they tell you your players are quick,” Church said. "And [they show] your movement off the ball too and that's what's happening. There's a reason we haven't drawn penalties in the last couple of years—we just haven’t been as quick up front. But now with a little bit more quickness up front, we're drawing more penalties too and I expect that trend will continue to go on during the season.”
The Blue Devils had found their lead, and while it won’t be Cooper whose name will go in the box score for a goal or assist, it was her speed to the ball that sparked the offense.
And it wouldn’t be long before she’d help increase the Duke lead.
Ten minutes and a pair of Blue Devil shots later, Cooper found herself just outside of the center circle with the ball at her feet and a just on-side Pluck calling for the ball. Cooper obliged with a beautiful through-ball and Pluck took control, with only a single Vanderbilt defender and goalie between her and her third goal of the season. The defender jostled Pluck but it was too late—she chipped it off her left foot as she fell to the ground, sending it sailing over the goalie’s head and doubling Duke’s lead.
“It’s crucial, it's absolutely crucial,” Church said of Pluck’s finishing ability. “She's doing a really good job of finishing at this point. If she doesn't finish, she's not dropping her head - she's moving on to the next play. And she's really playing like a senior, like a high level senior. She's gonna be critical [to] our success going forward.”
For the Blue Devils, the pair of goals from Boade and Pluck—for each of them, their 16th career goal—would prove to be all they needed to make their way past Vanderbilt (1-2-1). While Cooper didn’t secure her fourth straight start with a goal to begin her career, her impact on the matchup was undeniable, as she had a hand (or in this case, foot) in each of the two scores.
“It’s a supporting thing,” Cooper said of her performance today, the first of her collegiate career without a goal. “Just helping each other out, doing as much as we can to help the person next to us, behind us, in front of us, to make sure we get the result we need and more.”
On the defensive side of things, the Duke backline got their second straight game of “rest”, only facing a handful of opportunities, as the Commodores struggled to gain possession against the Blue Devils for more than a run at a time.
And hopefully the break in action will serve the Duke backline well, as the Blue Devils’ upcoming matchup with No. 13 Stanford promises to serve up more offense. In their last two games, the Cardinal have scored a combined 13 goals and will come into their Thursday night matchup at Koskinen Stadium riding a wave of momentum that Duke will surely want to halt as they ride their own winning streak into the clash of elite women’s soccer programs.
“We're very excited about the Stanford game,” Church said. “Hopefully we get a really, really big crowd out there. It should be two of the top-five teams, top-10 teams in the country playing each other. So we're looking forward to it; it’s a great challenge.”
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