CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—On Thursday night, the seventh-ranked Cavaliers cracked the recipe for taking down the second-ranked Blue Devils, as they handed them their first loss of the season.
Unfortunately for the rest of the country, this recipe won't be so easy to duplicate.
Let’s begin with the first ingredient: remove some of Duke’s key players from the lineup, including two of the usual starters.
Coming into their matchup against Virginia, the Blue Devils knew that they would be playing without frequent centre-back substitute, freshman Baleigh Bruster, after she suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Duke’s win over North Carolina just under a week ago.
What they didn’t know until the day-before and the day-of was who else they would be missing—sophomore Olivia Migli and freshman Michelle Cooper, who were both held out of the match due to health and safety protocols. Coincidentally, both of these players contributed assists on Duke’s game-winning goal against the Tar Heels and, as one might guess, the Blue Devil offense took a hit on Thursday night.
Duke put up just nine shots against the Cavaliers, tied for a season-low, with only three of those on-goal—a new season-low. And of those shots on-goal, none were particularly threatening. While the Blue Devils didn’t struggle maintaining possession on the offensive side of the field, the box was nearly impenetrable, despite Duke’s primary forwards in senior Mackenzie Pluck and graduate student Tess Boade playing well individually. You could tell the team was sorely missing the gravity that Cooper brings to the box and offensive eye that Migli brings to her wingback position, as she played as a forward for much of her freshman year and was tied for the team lead in goals that season.
But the Blue Devil offense wasn’t the only aspect of Duke’s game missing the absent players—the substitution strategy was affected too. After playing at least five substitutes in every game so far this season—and playing as many as 13 in their win against Western Carolina—Duke head coach Robbie Church played just three against the Cavaliers. And of those three, only senior Sydney Simmons played more than 30 minutes. Seven Blue Devils played the full 90-minutes—the most in a single game this season.
Now onto the second ingredient: have one of the most talented offenses in the country; a claim that the Cavaliers can certainly boast.
Virginia may be missing one of their star forwards in Rebecca Jarrett, who suffered a season-ending injury just over two weeks ago, but their offensive talent runs deep, with forwards Diana Ordoñez and Alexa Spaanstra each playing 90 minutes in this one. Ordoñez scored the game-winner less than 15 minutes into the second half, marking her ninth goal of the season, good for second in the country in total goals this season.
Time for the third ingredient: the environment.
For all their early-season success, this Duke team doesn’t have much experience on the road, as the Cavaliers were just their third away game of the season, and only the second outside of North Carolina. The Blue Devils may have been coming off a historic victory against the Tarheels on Dorrance Field, but a far smaller contingent of Duke fans made their way to Charlottesville, Va., and the Virginia fans easily overpowered them.
But the stadium environment wasn’t the only obstacle in Duke’s way—the field itself was Virginia’s best defender. Despite not having rained that day, the field was slick from the pre-game watering that had gone all the way up until the team’s starting lineups were announced. And while both teams felt the effects, it was the Blue Devils that bore the brunt of it, slipping throughout the game, often at what felt like the most inopportune moments.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
And for the fourth-and-final ingredient: hope Duke doesn’t play like they’ve shown they can.
Senior fullback Delaney Graham—a two-time All-ACC player who was named to the preseason All-ACC team this year—has been a constant (and incredibly fast) presence on the field since stepping on campus her freshman year, starting in every game she’s played but two. But against the Cavaliers, she didn’t look like her usual poised self, biting on balls she normally doesn’t and finding herself on the wrong side of multiple crosses.
And she wasn’t the only one that struggled. Passes that normally went eight yards went five. Players that are usually in sync couldn’t find their rhythm. And a normally clean team kept running into and over each other.
Despite all of that, Duke played a near-even match with Virginia, save the single goal.
There were bright spots too, including the performance of sophomore fullback Nicky Chico who made her first career-start and played the full-90 in this one, after never playing more than 49 minutes in a game prior to this matchup.
“Nicky Chico was a great spark for us today,” Church said. “And I'm very, very proud of her.”
Duke goalkeeper Ruthie Jones continued to impress, making a number of unlikely saves, as she continues to establish herself as one of the best netminders in the game. And, save a couple moments, the Blue Devil backline continued to show why they’re one of the best defensive units in the country, keeping a potent Virginia offense at bay for nearly the entire match.
So fear not Duke fans—this particular confluence of chaos is unlikely to happen again. Migli and Cooper will return as soon as allowed. Graham will surely return to her pre-Virginia form. And, outside of an upcoming trip to Virginia Tech and a season-closing trip to Louisville, all of Duke’s remaining regular season games will be in North Carolina—five of those will be at home.
“This group wants to win,” Church said. “They want to win every match. They want to win every trophy out there. And they're upset that they didn't do that tonight.”
This team is mad, and now they have a chip on their shoulder. And Caitlin Cosme's quote continues to hold true—it’s still a Duke era.