With just under seven minutes left in the second period, No. 7 Duke trailed No. 16 Virginia 6-4. It seemed that every Blue Devil offensive possession was stunted with a foul or a turnover, and that they wouldn’t be able to compete with the Cavaliers. Until Katie DeSimone decided otherwise.
The sophomore scored her first goal just more than three minutes into the period. Her second came on a pass from junior midfielder Lexi Schmalz on a free position shot. The third was off of a Catriona Barry dime, and the fourth? The fourth ended with her shoulder blades almost on the ground, as her shot somehow found its way into the net. That goal was the one that put Duke back on top 7-6, a position it would not relinquish on its way to the 13-8 victory. Though that last goal might have been the most flashy, it was her first goal that meant the most. That first goal was DeSimone's 100th career point.
“She works. She worked so hard all over the field for us, not just scoring goals in the, in the ride, and just kind of helping to facilitate our offense,” said head coach Kerstin Kimel of DeSimone.
Over her two years at Duke, DeSimone has quickly established herself as an integral part of the Blue Devil offense. As a freshman, she didn’t start for the first nine games of the season. She made her first start against Notre Dame, notching a hat trick, and would go on to score in eight of her ten starts with three hat tricks and a stellar seven-point showing in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
This season, that trend has continued. After scoring 13 goals through the first two games, DeSimone’s role in the offense was clear: score. And against Virginia (6-7, 2-4 in the ACC), score she did. Her four goals in the second period, along with Abby Landry’s unassisted score, set Duke (13-1, 4-1) back on the path to victory. It was one of those goals, her third to be exact, that started the Blue Devils' scoring run: throughout the end of the second period and the entirety of the third, Duke outscored Virginia 7-0. Junior Kiki Shaw, the Cavaliers' leading scorer on the day with a hat trick of her own, fired back just more than three minutes into the fourth. It wasn’t enough, however—that goal only cut Duke's lead to four, and Virginia couldn’t recover.
The second period contained the turning point for the Blue Devils. Duke and Virginia were swapping scores, as DeSimone responded to all three of the Cavaliers' goals in the period. Duke had cut its deficit to one, but still showed no signs of running away with it. With under three minutes to play in the half, Virginia had possession. Defender Cubby Biscardi stepped up and caused a turnover, which senior goalie Sophia LeRose recovered. It took 12 seconds from the time that LeRose gained possession to when Landry put the ball in the net. As “Shipping up to Boston” played over the loudspeaker, the score was tied for the first time since late in the first quarter. That quick possession and goal changed the tempo, and momentum, of the game. Both swung in Duke’s favor.
“Abby Landry's goal was really a huge turning point for us. And that's something that we've been asking her to do is, you know, go to goal, be aggressive,” said Kimel. That goal was Landry’s second of three. She also tabbed an assist on an Olivia Carner goal in the fourth quarter for four points, her season high.
The offense wasn’t the only unit firing on all cylinders. Duke’s defense limited an explosive Virginia offense to just eight goals. That was the result of a key defensive adjustment: from zone coverage to man.
“We played a ton of man-to-man in this game, and that was not necessarily our game plan…” said Kimel. “…they came in, kind of ready to pick apart our one zone that we've been really successful in. So I'm really proud of our defense for you know, being able to adjust and play really well.” That adjustment also helped the Blue Devils to cause 18 turnovers, cutting the Cavaliers’ possessions short and giving themselves more chances to score.
Virginia was Duke’s third ranked opponent of the season, and the second it’s beaten. While it did lose to then-No. 3 Syracuse by two in a close, hard-fought matchup, it downed both then-No. 14 Notre Dame and now Virginia. In the ACC, you are always going to have tough opponents; six schools in the conference are currently ranked. But those are the same teams you will meet in the postseason when everything is on the line. To be great, you have to beat great teams. Duke is currently doing just that, though that task is about to get much harder. Of its next three games, two are against Boston College and North Carolina—the top two teams in the country. The team’s approach is quite simple, because it’s no different than normal.
“Kirsten says nameless, faceless opponents and I think we're just sticking to that this year,” said DeSimone on their approach for the remainder of the regular season. “We have [Virginia Tech] on Thursday and then [Boston College] and eventually [North Carolina] so I think just staying on our end goal and staying focused and playing together as a unit.”
With the ACC tournament in sight, Duke will have to stick to that goal more than ever. If they can continue where they left off against the Cavaliers, led by that same aggressive offense and adaptive defense, the Blue Devils’ postseason will be a long one.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.