As 2021 comes to a close, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest stories of the year in Duke athletics. Each day, we will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year for the Blue Devils.
Coming in at No. 7: Duke women's soccer suddenly contends for a national title. For the full list, click here.
The Blue Devils ended the 2020-21 season, by far the longest in team history, with an Elite-Eight loss to No. 1 Florida State. Despite being outmatched, Duke managed to play to penalties. Had one of those shootout kicks gone differently, it could’ve made the Final Four; instead, four-year legend Taylor Mitchell missed a consequential take in her last game.
Mitchell was one of three players to not return for 2021. The Blue Devils added a pair of top-20 freshmen and a couple transfers, but it seemed they needed significant internal development to improve.
Duke opened the season with preseason-Nos. 13 Arkansas and 19 Washington, with Nos. 18 Vanderbilt and 24 Stanford later on the calendar. Head coach Robbie Church described how big wins would be needed for a good seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Devils kicked off by falling behind the Razorbacks, before one of those freshmen, striker Michelle Cooper, rocketed an equalizer for a halftime tie. Her fellow offensive personnel, attacking mids Tess Boade and Mackenzie Pluck, finished off the win.
Cooper scored again in Duke’s match against the Huskies, another promising win.
Cooper then scored twice against Western Carolina, the first player in school history to score four times in her first three games. Boade showcased more scoring, and Pluck seemed an all-around different athlete. By the time Duke beat Stanford, it was clear these were a different breed of Blue Devil.
They truly announced their national contender status, however, upon handing then-No. 2 North Carolina its first-ever loss at Dorrance Field.
But every fairy tale needs unforeseen challenges. Ahead of a visit to then-No. 7 Virginia, Cooper and wing back Olivia Migli entered health and safety protocols; a tight loss harkened back to scoring-challenged days of yore. That the Blue Devils hung so close with the eventual ACC regular-season champs, without two of their best players, only reinforced Duke’s title hopes. A tie with Virginia Tech and improbable loss to N.C. State followed before Cooper and Migli participated in a full week of practice.
With those two back, the Blue Devils reeled off a 5-0 regular-season finish, with three wins against NCAA tournament teams, including No. 1 Florida State. This earned them the distinction of the most top-15 wins in the country, a top-three ranking for just two weeks.
But there was some heartbreak upon the start of postseason play, losing its first-round ACC tournament match to a team it had already beaten by netting an own-goal moments after a late equalizer. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and with a relatively good draw. That bracket eased up further when the region’s other seeds—including historic-Duke-kryptonite UCLA—were all eliminated early.
The Blue Devils battled bad luck and questionable whistles to adapt their play to tournament challenges. A historic offensive output to trounce St. John’s left only reigning-champion Santa Clara between Duke and the Final Four. The Broncos, unseeded but No. 9 in the poll, scored two early goals in a tale-of-two-halves contest to advance. It was Duke’s first season-ending loss in Durham since 1997.
Florida State won the national championship, with its lone defeat forever remaining a convincing loss to Duke.
Despite that, Duke’s season was a landmark. It finished the season 16-4-1, the program’s third-best record under Church. Cooper, Boade and goalie Ruthie Jones were named first-team All-ACC, and holding mid Sophie Jones second-team; those vets finished within TopDrawerSoccer’s top-20 nationwide, and Cooper ranked as its No. 1 freshman overall.
To finish out, all three super-senior captains were drafted to the NWSL—Boade in 2021, centre back Caitlin Cosme and holding mid Lily Nabet in 2022—as Duke announced an incoming class featuring three top-10 freshmen.
2021 goes down as a premier season for one of the country’s premier programs, and the future remains bright as ever.
READ MORE on Duke women's soccer's historic season:
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