Saint John may have written the Book of Revelations, but Sunday night, the biggest revelation on the field was Michelle Cooper.
The freshman striker scored her second brace Sunday, accounting for two of Duke’s playoff-record-tying seven goals in its 7-1 Sweet Sixteen win over St. John’s. She took the first shot of the game, a one-touched rocket that ricocheted off Red Storm goalie Naya Lipkens’ hands, less than two minutes in. Fifty seconds later, she headed a corner to the low post from nine yards out that nearly snuck by a diving Lipkens, and finally converted after another minute by launching a loose ball from 30 yards out. By the end of the first half, the ACC Freshman of the Year had seven shots, five on goal, for the brace.
“She's a special freshman,” head coach Robbie Church said. “She’s sort of like some of them that we see playing in Cameron [Indoor Stadium], some of the basketball players there who just play at a very, very high level… She's got a great desire to be not good, but great. I think you'll see her in the spring and other times play with our national teams, some of the youth national teams that are coming up. The sky's really the limit for Michelle.”
'[I look] to help our team'
Early aggression is nothing new for Cooper, and neither is high usage. The First-Team All-ACC awardee opened her collegiate career with two shots in the first 15 minutes against Arkansas and finished with six in 60—prorated to 90 minutes, that’d be the tenth-most shots ever by a Blue Devil in a game. In just her third match, against Western Carolina, she only played the first half, but finished on pace for the program single-game shots record; all seven of her shots that day came in the first 33 minutes.
All the while, though, Cooper was also setting up teammates. Even if assists didn't tally in her stat line, she directly helped set up multiple penalty kicks.
“I never want to be the person to be selfish and take an opportunity from someone else if it will put our team in a better place,” Cooper said after the Arkansas win. “So I always look to someone else or I look to the better option before this pass, for the shot on goal — whatever it is — to help our team."
'She's gonna be great'
Cooper's performance against the Catamounts made her the first freshman to score four goals in her first three games in Duke history.
“She's very easy to play with, she's very dynamic and fast. And she scores the goals that no one thinks you can," attacking midfielder Mackenzie Pluck said after the Arkansas game. "So playing with her gives everyone energy, because… we're going to score goals with her. So I really appreciate her, love that girl. She's gonna be great.”
The effect of having Cooper atop the Duke attack is tangible. She has been able to boost the abilities of those around her, just by being on the field. Pluck, the No. 21 recruit in her freshman class, is having a career year in her senior season — career-highs in points per minute, assists, shots per minute, and shots on goal. Fellow attacking mid Tess Boade — who plays more of an enganche role to Pluck’s second striker — has set career-highs in every volume and efficiency stat en route to a first-team All-ACC selection.
“Michelle, obviously she's the focal point of our team right now. She's an incredible player,” wing back Delaney Graham said the week after the Sep. 17 win at North Carolina. “She's so unselfish, she just knows where to go, she works hard. And so I think that because of all those things, she's helping everyone else around her to play better as well. Like she's helped Mac Pluck grow so much as a player — not only tactically and technically, but also mentally she's helped her gain confidence, I think. And they play really well off of each other, and I think that because they do that, their movement is so great that it kind of opens up spaces for everyone else.”
With her second goal against St. John’s, Cooper set the Blue Devils’ all-time freshman goal-scoring record, and stands on the verge of several spots on Duke’s all-time single-season leaderboards:
- Three away from 10th in points
- Two away from a tie for seventh in goals
- Five away from 10th in shots
- One away from a tie for seventh in multi-goal games
- One away from a tie for fifth in game-winning goals
Cooper is currently running the fifth-highest points-per-game in Duke history; to put it another way, if she hadn’t missed three games to health and safety protocols and had maintained her current pace, she’d likely be tied for eighth in points in a single season and seventh in goals.
'[She] makes our whole defense's job so much easier'
It was those three games Cooper missed that truly underscored her impact. Going into Charlottesville, Va., the Blue Devils sat second in the polls and had one of the best offenses in team history. Cooper and wing back Olivia Migli missed that September game against the Cavaliers, leaving Duke without two of its five best offensive players. And the difference between the Blue Devils against now-No. 7 Arkansas and No. 10 North Carolina and against No. 2 Virginia was seismic. They struggled to finish build-ups and Pluck and attacking midfielder Tess Boade saw more defensive attention without Cooper’s gravity. And Duke’s defense found it harder to operate without her seemingly continuous high pressing.
“Obviously [Cooper]’s a great attacking player… But she will work on the other side of the ball,” Church said after the Sep. 17 North Carolina game. “And it says so much for your team when one of your top players, especially because a lot of attacking players will go ‘oh, I only attack, I don't defend over here.’ And so when from the beginning when she's pressing, and she's closing players down, the rest are like, ‘hey, she's doing that work? I got to do that. I gotta do that same work too.’”
Cooper’s first full week of training after entering health and safety protocols came after the Duke’s hapless loss to N.C. State. In four of the five games that followed, the Blue Devils allowed just one shot on goal. The acute difference was partly because of increased minutes to staunch defenders in utility player Sydney Simmons and wing back Nicky Chico. But a lot of it came from the reinstallation of Cooper.
The four games that Duke allowed a combined four shots on goal were against Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, and Louisville — no cakewalk of a schedule, with the Deacons and Irish making the NCAA tournament and the latter the country’s 20th-best scoring offense.
“After the Wake Forest game, I looked at pretty much my whole back five, and I was like, ‘wow, guys, I wasn't that tired that game? I don't know why I wasn't that tired?’ And Tess turned around and said, ‘well, that's because Michelle and our midfield and me and Pluck, were pressing the shit out of Wake Forest the whole time, they couldn't get out.’ And it shows,” centre back Caitlin Cosme said. “And she was absolutely right; when they're on, and they're pressing the ball, and they're not letting these teams out of their own half, it makes my job and our whole defense's job so much easier… So, kudos to them.”
'I've never seen someone like this'
If Cooper's excellence as a striker and high-presser weren't enough, she's also shown a remarkable versatility. When Pluck rolled her ankle against Notre Dame, the freshman found herself the recipient of increased defensive attention, and quickly responded with an increase in her passing. Without Boade in the ACC tournament against Wake Forest, she had to become more aggressive in leading and finishing. Now, as teams drop their defenses quicker and play Cooper more aggressively, she's had to become a back-to-the-net facilitator.
Beyond the tangible skills she exhibits on the pitch, that adaptability might be Cooper's most advanced skill.
“We find a way to win because we have that type of player and I think she's mentally strong, competitive,” said Church after Cooper overcame a mistake for a game-winner. “I think for as young as she is, that mentality of being able to move on right after you make a play…”
“I make notes in my head, like ‘that was not ideal,’” Cooper said after making a game-winning adjustment against Notre Dame. “But, you know, quick memory loss, just get over that and move on as quick as possible to try and finish the game.”
This season almost didn't happen. In classic Duke women's soccer fashion, Cooper looked like a uniquely talented, hyperactive striker in the team's exhibition match against Georgia, the kind that hadn't graced Koskinen Stadium in at least four years. She looked like that for 15 minutes, and then went down with an injury. It looked possibly severe, and she had to be helped off the field.
The Blue Devils, a program dedicated to finding new and exciting ways to break your heart, went from the promise of resuscitating a long-struggling offense to the prospect of their best freshman missing her first year in only a handful of minutes.
But Cooper returned just three days later for Duke's second exhibition, and scored eight minutes in. Three months later, she broke school legend Kelly Cobb's freshman scoring record while helping lead the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight.
“Coming as a freshman, you're always kind of wary. They are freshmen, they're young, they're just out of high school, just out of club; it's a much different level,” said Cosme. “But I think Michelle brings an element to this team that I haven't seen since maybe [2019 NWSL second-round pick] Kayla McCoy, even. She brings speed, she brings athleticism, she brings strength; she's a competitor, and she is a bull, and she is going to body through you, work hard — even when she loses a ball, she is sprinting her butt back and getting it.
“And that's something that, first of all, I've never played against, so at practice I'm like shitting my pants — I’m like ‘oh my god, I've never seen someone like this.’ And also, I don't think other teams have ever experienced an attacking player like this.”
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