It was the last regular season game and, with ACC tournament seeding on the line, potentially the last home game of the season. The stands of Koskinen Stadium were filled with eager family and fans who had braved chilly fall weather for Friday's Senior Night.
As freshman Ruben Mesalles lined up for a corner kick in the seventh minute of sudden-death overtime, “Let’s go Duke” echoed through the misty air. After a surge from Virginia, including a near-miss that hit post, it seemed that it was now or never for the No. 13 Blue Devils; capitalize on this golden set-piece opportunity or fight an uphill battle against a Cavalier team playing with a chip on its shoulder.
Like a seasoned veteran, Mesalles calmly and with no hesitation fired off a perfect arc of a corner directly into the center of the box. It was chaos with so many bodies in front of the goal, but emerging from a sea of blue and white was sophomore defender Lewis McGarvey, an ace in aerial duels, to head the ball into the back of the net.
The entire roster piled atop McGarvey on the field as cheers erupted from everyone in the stadium. The Blue Devils had won 3-2, completing a miracle season and clinching a share of the ACC Coastal title.
“We've been striving for this moment—to be ACC champs—and finally we've done it. It feels great, and we’re thankful for all the players that came before us; they set the table for this group,” head coach John Kerr said after the game.
With this win, the Blue Devils (11-3-1, 5-2-1 in the ACC) are seeded third in the ACC tournament and will receive a bye, something that Kerr has set all season as their goal to work toward. However, it also unofficially gives Duke its first regular season ACC championship since 2006, as its 5-2-1 conference record is tied with Pittsburgh for best overall.
Becoming ACC Coastal co-champions after a 2020-21 season that saw them finish with the second worst overall win percentage in the conference has been quite the journey for the Blue Devils, and Senior Night gave them the opportunity to reflect on that. While there are only three seniors and one graduate student on this year’s roster, a short but sweet pregame ceremony set the tone for a night that would be decided by dedication and leaving it all on the field.
About the win, Kerr said, “It's huge for...the seniors that put four years of hard work into this program, and I’m very appreciative for all their endeavors and so pleased for them that they're going to continue in this great form that we're in.”
Senior Ian Murphy in particular stood out, as he turned in perhaps his most dialed-in performance of the season. A four-year starter on the backline, the defender came in clutch in multiple hairy situations to shut down Cavalier opportunities, especially during Virginia’s late-game surge. Just behind him in goal, senior Eliot Hamill—though this was far from his best game—swallowed up two potentially game-deciding saves. While the Cavaliers (6-8-3, 2-5-1) scored two straight in the second to tie the game, the hunger they brought could have resulted in much worse for the Blue Devils without the defense aptly led by those two on Senior Night.
On the other side of the field, Duke seemed to click offensively, getting chance after chance and capitalizing on set pieces like it did on its golden goal. All three Blue Devil goals were catalyzed by set piece opportunities, and Kerr emphasized that that is something they specifically work on in practice.
“We’ve been practicing those every week, so it's nice to be on the right end of that,” he said.
The first goal came off a free kick just outside the box. Mesalles launched a line drive right at Virginia goalie Holden Brown, who couldn’t get a hold of a rebound that landed right in the feet of sophomore defender Antino Lopez. Lopez punched it in, and the Blue Devils had a one-goal lead in the 23rd minute.
Duke's second goal was a similar affair, as another free kick eventually found its way into the back of the net. This time, sophomore walk-on Luke Thomas diverted a kick from sophomore Nick Pariano, which was then tipped by sophomore striker Thorleifur Ulfarsson for his eleventh goal in as many games.
It wasn’t a perfect game for Duke. “I almost had a heart attack there in the second half when we gave up a second goal and almost a third goal,” Kerr joked.
But all's well that ends well, and the performance showed that the culmination of a season’s worth of hard work paid off. When they take the field Sunday for the second round of the ACC tournament with eight days of rest and practice under their belt, the Blue Devils are optimistic that their hard work can carry their season even further.
Kerr said, “This is an ambitious group with a lot to offer, and long may that continue.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.