After starting classes on Aug. 23, the Blue Devils were ready to blow off some steam against Western Carolina.
And they did just that, scoring more goals against the Catamounts than they had in their first two games combined.
Star freshman Michelle Cooper may have opened up the scoring for the Blue Devils Thursday with a pair of first-half goals, but it was the second-line that led No. 5 Duke past Western Carolina 6-0 in Koskinen Stadium for its third straight victory to mark its best start since 2012.
“Domination, it was complete domination, and a lot of energy,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said of the second group. “And they do that in training. We don't have ‘I’ people, we have ‘we’ people—what's going to make Duke best. But today when they got their chance to play, they did a great job with the energy and four goals in the second half.”
But coming into the second half, it didn’t look like scoring more goals was at the top of the Blue Devil priority list, as both Cooper—who is just the fourth player in Duke history to score in her first three games and first since 2001—and Mackenzie Pluck, who had secured the game-winner in Duke’s previous game, had been subbed off the field.
In fact, the entirety of the second-half lineup was different from the first.
But unlike past Duke teams who have been content to win by just a couple goals, this new platoon had no qualms about running up the score. And it was senior striker Marykate McGuire who struck first.
Less than five minutes into the half, McGuire, who led the team in scoring her sophomore season but hadn’t scored since a win against Coastal Carolina last season, received a ball from junior Julia Burnell and showed off some tricky maneuvering in the box, à la fellow senior Mackenzie Pluck, before firing a shot into the net’s lower left to make it 3-0.
Sophomore Grace Watkins struck next with a redemption goal after an earlier shot attempt had glanced off the crossbar. Her bullet of a goal marked her second career score and gave Duke (3-0) a comfortable 4-0 lead.
But the bench wasn’t done yet—it was junior Emmy Duerr’s first game of the season and she had something to prove.
It didn’t take long for her to do so.
Mere minutes after Watkins had given the Blue Devils a more-than-comfortable four-goal lead, Burnell found Duerr in the box and the junior slid it past the keeper, marking her first goal since the 2019 NCAA tournament, when she found the back of the net twice against Utah. And in a callback to that performance, she decided to make it a trend—when she scores, she does it twice—and notched her second goal of the night three minutes after the first.
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“I’ve scored in two games, and both games have been two goals and honestly, that's not a trend that I’m too disappointed about,” Duerr said. “If that keeps happening, that's great. But no, it was amazing to feel that way. There's so much hard work that's gone into this season. And last year, it's been a really tough year for everyone. So that was a cool moment for me and I think for my teammates all to be out on the field together.”
It really was all the teammates out on the field together, as every active player on the roster saw at least some playing time against the Catamounts (1-2). For each of those players, tonight represented a storyline. But it was Burnell’s who stuck out the most.
Burnell had medical red-shirted her first season after two ACL operations. In her second season, she saw action in only one game—the only stat to her name was a single shot in Duke’s win against Coastal Carolina. But against Western Carolina, she finally had her chance and she made the most of it, tallying two assists to two different players in just her second career game.
“It was awesome—I was just so excited to get forward and help someone else score,” Burnell said of her twin assists. “Being able to have your teammates you watch every time, watch you and cheer you on is the best feeling in the world. It feels like you're finally being rewarded for something.”
The rewards go all-around after this one, but perhaps the biggest award goes to Church and his coaching staff. The Blue Devils aren’t often known for their stellar offense—it’s usually their staunch defense. But after tonight, it’s clear that this team has one of the deepest pools of offensive depth in recent history and Church will surely take advantage of that as the season stretches on.
"I think the quality, the work rate and the commitment of that [second] group—we really saw that on display today," Church said. "That's the same thing we get every day in training from that group, and that's why this team has really improved over the last 12 to 15 months. I was really happy to see that out of them tonight, and they really got a reward with four goals in the second half."
Next up is Duke’s second quick turnaround of the season and its first road trip of the regular season as it travels to Tennessee for a rematch of last year's final regular season game against Vanderbilt Sunday at 3pm.