It’s been a tough couple weeks for the Blue Devils since their historic win against North Carolina Sept. 17.
It began with forward Michelle Cooper and wingback Olivia Migli being pulled from the lineup due to health and safety protocols just prior to their matchup at Virginia. That ended in a 1-0 Duke loss. It continued days later with a disappointing 1-1 tie at Virginia Tech, despite the Blue Devils being a woman-up for over 30 minutes.
But against Syracuse, Duke re-established its rhythm and began to rediscover its offense.
Duke dominated the Orange in its first matchup at home since Sept. 9, en route to its second-best start through 10-games in program history. The final score may have been just 2-0, but there’s much more to the story than just the margin of victory.
That story begins with the environment of the night. It was alumni night at Koskinen Stadium and there were 25 former players in attendance to watch the Blue Devils take on the Orange. And despite it being fall break for the Duke student body, the community had come out in force to watch the team, eager to provide support in-person after Duke’s three-game road stint.
“We had a great crowd,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “We've had a great student turnout and it obviously wasn’t the students here but I thought we had a fantastic crowd—very, very supportive crowd and it was just so nice to be back here. We got a really nice home field advantage—just a little bit more relaxed with things.”
That relaxation was evident on the field from the opening kickoff, as the Blue Devils (8-1-1, 2-1-1 in the ACC) quickly established themselves on the ball and dominated possession, a trend that would continue throughout the entire evening. And along with the possession, so too came the shots, as Duke picked up its first shot 1:37 into the night and its first three before the 10-minute mark.
Unfortunately, along with the shooting came an old enemy of the Blue Devils: seemingly constant offside calls whenever they found space behind the Syracuse backline. Prior to its matchup against Virginia Tech, Duke hadn’t picked up more than three offsides in a single matchup. Against the Orange (4-6-1, 0-4-0), the Blue Devils found themselves on the wrong side of the line judge’s whistle four times in the first 20 minutes.
“[We’re] typically not upset with all offsides calls because you're being aggressive, you're pushing the line, you're on the line,” Church said. “But today was very disappointing and they heard it at halftime, because that just breaks the rhythm of play.”
But after that first 20 minutes—a flurry of shots and offsides from the Blue Devils and only a single shot from Syracuse—the game slowed down a bit with most of the action relegated to the midfield. That is, until Duke picked up its second corner of night.
Duke’s designated corner-taker, senior Mackenzie Pluck, sent it into the box, where Syracuse goalie Lysianne Proulx got the first touch on it, but was unable to corral it. A bit of chaos and a Syracuse attempt to clear the ball later and graduate student Lily Nabet found herself on the receiving end of the clear. After two quick touches from her right foot she was ready and fired off a shot from her left, just outside the 18. As it was on its way, Nabet got a bit of help as the ball glanced off the head of a Syracuse defender, giving it just the angle it needed to sneak into the right-side of the goal.
Just like that, Nabet had found her second-career score and her first since September 2018—coincidentally also against Syracuse—and the Blue Devils had begun to carve out some breathing room.
“It felt great,” Nabet said of her goal. “It's always a good feeling, especially a bit early on in the match to score. And I feel like it turned the momentum around a little bit.”
While the momentum certainly felt like it was on Duke’s side most of the match, Nabet’s score helped to settle the team. After picking up five offside calls prior to her score, they only received three more throughout the remainder of the night. The shots kept coming but going into halftime, the score remained 1-0.
And through the first 10 minutes of the second, that remained true, but it was only a matter of time before the volume of Blue Devil shots led to a Syracuse mistake. Once again, it was Pluck who was the instigator, this time taking a shot (eventually credited as an assist) that was initially deflected by Proulx. But the Orange weren’t fast enough to the clear, and sophomore Maggie Graham was first to the ball, slotting it into a rapidly narrowing area of space to put her team up 2-0.
It was Graham’s third career score and, in increasingly coincidental fashion, just like Nabet, Graham’s previous scores had come against Syracuse.
“It shows the depth of our team,” Church said of the scoring not coming from the usual players. “It shows that we can be dangerous from different areas, not just the front line, but our midfielders making timing runs, getting in behind their backs. It was nice to get the goals from our midfielders because it wasn't a lack of work or lack of trying or lack of creativity [that prevented Duke from scoring], but I thought the keeper played very well for them.”
“Played very well” may be an understatement to describe the efforts of Proulx. By the time the final whistle sounded, the Blue Devils had put up 17 shots on goal—the most by the team since an 8-0 win against Elon in August of 2012. Proulx made 15 saves—a career-high—as she single-handedly saved the Orange from what could have been their most embarrassing loss of the season. Her team put up just two shots on target, so don’t let the final score fool you—this one wasn’t close at all.
As the Blue Devils look ahead to their last six games of the regular season, with four of those at home, they have good reason to be confident. In this one, they rediscovered some of their offensive prowess. In the next one, their leading scorer from this year, Michelle Cooper, and their leading scorer from last year, Olivia Migli, are both set to return after passing health and safety protocols, a team spokesperson confirmed to The Chronicle.
“I think we're gonna be everybody's biggest competitor this year,” said Nabet. “This team is ready to win a national championship. But we're trying to [go] game by game and focus on the next and win that one.”
So come Thursday against N.C. State, back at Koskinen Stadium, Duke will be eager to continue its winning ways.
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