The Blue Devils played true to the roots of their mascot’s name, embracing their villain status in Chapel Hill and ending a quintessential Tobacco Road rivalry game with a historic victory Friday.
“To be a part of this sort of rivalry and have this game Friday night—the crowd was amazing. It was fun,” Duke goalkeeper Ruthie Jones said. “I loved all the Carolina fans hollering and booing; it was awesome. It just makes me feel lucky to be a part of it.”
Good teams play off their home crowd, but great teams play off their opponent’s crowd. And after this victory, there’s no denying that this Duke team is something special.
Before this match even started, you could tell there was something different in the air. It began with a sold-out Dorrance Field—the fourth-most fans ever at a North Carolina home game, with standing-room only space available—a place where the Tar Heels had never lost. It continued when the game’s referees were introduced as Darth Vader’s Theme song played in the background.
And once the opening buzzer sounded, it didn’t take long for whatever was in the air that night to manifest on the field, as both teams began to rack up the fouls and eventually, the cards.
The fouls began early and continued at a steady-pace throughout the first half, as each of the two bluebloods fought for any advantage that they could find. Soccer is normally a game of inches and seconds, but on Friday night, it was one of millimeters and milliseconds.
Just over 15 minutes in, the first card was issued—a yellow on Duke’s Katie Groff. Seven-and-a-half minutes later, the Tar Heels picked up a yellow of their own. It would have been hard to guess at the time, but these two cards were more foreshadowing than a finale.
And it wasn’t just cards and fouls that began in the first half. It was leaping saves from the goalies and masterful closeouts from the defenses. It was ceaseless sprinting, especially from Duke’s star freshman Michelle Cooper—who seemed to be everywhere you looked. And it was constant jostling, just under the severity of what would be called a foul.
When the first 45 were up, it was clear that these teams were going to leave everything they had on the field; the only question left was “Who wants it more?”. The second-half would provide the answers, but only by taking what happened in the first half and proceeding to crank it up a few levels.
“We have a lot of teams that wouldn't survive in this type of game,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “This team is a tough team. They are no-nonsense, they want to win. And they bring it every day. This is as tough a team mentally and physically as we’ve had in a while.”
And the second-half was proof positive of this.
Just minutes into the second half, a tough collision forced Duke freshman Baleigh Bruster off the field with an apparent knee injury. Sophomore Olivia Migli, who had started this match for the Blue Devils after missing the last game-and-a-half with an ankle injury, replaced her and proceeded to play the remainder of the game, contributing her first-career assist in what proved to be the game-winning goal less than seven minutes after returning to the field.
The intensity of the first few minutes continued the rest of the way. Each team picked up two more yellow cards apiece and the Tar Heels tacked on a red card too, after their star freshman Emily Murphy—who missed the game because of an injury—was shown the card while on the bench and sent off to the locker room. The Blue Devils continued to put their bodies on the line, made especially clear when Carolina’s Molly Baker nearly had a one-on-one opportunity with Ruthie Jones - that is, until Jones put herself directly in front of Baker’s cleats with a sliding stop to prevent a shot.
If the goal wasn’t enough, this stop was to answer the question: the Blue Devils wanted this more. And even though it took the most combined fouls in a Duke-North Carolina matchup since 2004 and the most combined cards in a Duke-UNC matchup since at least 1998, that was a price that this Duke team was willing to pay.
“They haven’t been used to Duke coming after them,” graduate student Caitlin Cosme said. “And that was kind of our game plan where we said ‘Hey, we need to give it to them, we're not backing off. We need to get into them because we want to make them feel how they used to make us feel.’ And it worked.”
By the time the night was over, these Blue Devils had etched their names in the record books. They handed the Tar Heels their first loss in Chapel Hill in five years and a day. They notched their fourth-win against a ranked-team this season, already tied for eighth most in program history. And they matched their third-longest winning streak in program history.
As Cosme so aptly put it, “There’s a new era, and it’s a Duke era.” It took a 90-minute fight after years of heartache and more than a bruise or two for the players as they woke up the next morning.
But what’s a couple bruises when you’re making history?
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