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A lesson in jazz, from the referees for Duke women’s soccer as the Blue Devils beat Notre Dame

Senior Mackenzie Pluck is third on the team with 15 points this season.
Senior Mackenzie Pluck is third on the team with 15 points this season.

Every musician is taught from a young age to move right past mistakes during performances, since the audience rarely notices. That’s especially true in jazz, where an inadvertent note in an improved solo can be always played off as perfectly intentional.

It’s not so much true of Pachelbel’s Canon or Moonlight Sonata, where the audience knows the sound of the most famous compositions in human history by heart. Playing by the rules of jazz doesn't work in a symphony hall. It’s admirable, but absurd.

So when the referees at Koskinen Stadium decided Thursday night was the time to try jazz—given that players and coaches and fans know what’s supposed to be called and when—it naturally did not go smoothly.

No. 6 Duke overcame the stylistic choices of the umpires to notch a crucial 1-0 win against No. 15 Notre Dame Thursday, effectively clinching an ACC tournament berth. (Beating No. 1 Florida State or 10th-in-the-ACC Louisville guarantees the berth.) Forty-five seconds into overtime, Blue Devil attacking mid Tess Boade threaded a through pass by three Fighting Irish to find striker Michelle Cooper. She knocked it away from a diving goalie to create the consequential opening, her 21st point in her first 11 games, for Duke’s shortest-ever recorded overtime period.

“Give Notre Dame a lot of credit too. What a good team, what a good team. They've done a wonderful job," Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “They got pretty good players, they're gonna be a factor; ACC tournament, NCAA tournament—nobody wants to see them in their bracket. And they're playing really well.”

The Blue Devils (11-2-1, 5-2-1 in the ACC) weren’t just fighting against a quality Irish team, though. It was clear through the opening 10 minutes that the men in orange on the field were making themselves known. Contact was being policed harder than usual. Both teams were penalized for play that might’ve been allowed by another crew.

Rhythm section players in jazz combos have vital responsibilities, even when someone else is soloing. They must establish the rhythm and the chords and the style, and be able to adapt those to help support the soloist, all while ensuring they themselves do not become the object of the audience’s attention.

The refs clearly thought they were soloing.

Their initial whistles were contained mostly within the midfield. But in the 16th minute, Duke attacking mid Mackenzie Pluck passed up the box to wing back Delaney Graham, one-on-one with Notre Dame wing back Kati Druzina. Druzina tried to shield Graham away, but the ball wasn’t reaching the end line, and Graham was able to turn the corner under her. Druzina lost her footing trying to box out, but the orangeshirts called Graham for a foul.

The Blue Devils caught their biggest break when Irish striker Olivia Wingate was whistled atop Duke’s box for pulling a bit on Blue Devil centre back Katie Groff while trying to recover to the latter’s tackle. A few minutes later, Graham recovered a loose ball inside Notre Dame’s box, and was bumped off her spot by Druzina, who resultantly lost her balance and fell into Graham as the ball skidded away.

Graham was again called for a foul, to the exasperation of every Blue Devil nearby.

“It's frustrating when we're doing all the right things, and there are silly calls being made against us that are disrupting our flow,” Graham said. “And I think, honestly, it went both ways…. So, we all have to deal with it, we all have to learn to keep our frustrations at bay and not talk back to the referee much.”

By the end of the first half, Duke and Notre Dame (12-3-1, 6-2) had combined for 16 fouls. In jazz, it’s a cliché to say that it’s not about the notes you play—it’s about the notes you don’t play. And where the first half was about the whistles the refs did blow, the second was certainly more impacted by the one they didn’t.

Six minutes into the second, Cooper ran a counter that ended in a Blue Devil four-player disadvantage and a crosser from Graham, that overshot Cooper, and landed right on Martinez’s arm and leg. Martinez then swung her bicep into the ball, and it dropped back to Cooper.

By the letter of the law, that’s not just a handball; it’s two handballs. The initial corralling of the ball violates rule — “touch[ing] the ball with his/her hand/arm when the hand/arm has made his/her body unnaturally bigger” — and Martinez swinging her bicep into the ball because of rotating her shoulders violates rule — “deliberately touch[ing] the ball with his/her hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm toward the ball.” And about 750 attendees were audibly aghast as play continued.

Cooper kicked it out to a trailing Boade, who rocketed a lefty crossing shot requiring a tough save. Irish left centre back Eva Wirtz pulled the ball upfield, right into the chest of Duke attacking mid Maggie Graham, bolting in from Wirtz’s blind spot. The now-unmarked Maggie Graham corralled the ball 10 yards from goal, but pulled her shot wide right.

Cooper and Boade barely saw that, though, so exasperated by the non-call that they’d started jogging off after the save.

“It's a tough job being an official. And you know, both ways—you do watch the game with rose[-colored] glasses. We thought there were some calls that didn't go our way. But you got to play through it, though,” Church said. “You can't get rattled, you can't let that take you out of your focus. You gotta play to the human. They're going to make mistakes, we're screaming, they're screaming like fools over there on the sidelines and stuff, too. And they have to continue to play. I thought they did a good job of that.

“I thought it was a tough game to ref, too, because you had a lot of really good athletes, high-level athletes, and they were competing hard.”

The orangeshirts, like any good musician, moved on like they’d done exactly what they were supposed to. Except this audience knew the right notes, and made their resultant displeasure heard.

Just as they have all season, the Blue Devils fought through their frustrations. Even as Boade was visibly gassed and Sophie Jones and Cooper and Pluck sat towards the end of the second half, they turned away the Irish possessions. And after a couple minutes of rest after regulation, all they needed was another 50 seconds.


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