Make that one game and one win for this year’s Blue Devils.
Duke got off to a fast start in its season opener, claiming a quick 1-0 lead and holding it until the final whistle Thursday in Greenville, N.C. Senior midfielder Sophie Jones delivered the early strike for the second-ranked Blue Devils, who leaned on a stalwart defensive performance and a Ruthie Jones shutout in goal to take down an unflinching Pirate defense and move to 1-0 on the season.
“It feels great, it’s not easy to win…. At the end of the day, sure, we’d like to have scored a couple more goals, but we can only be 1-0. And that’s what we are,” head coach Robbie Church said after the game.
The Blue Devils (1-0) controlled possession from the opening kickoff, and Sophie Jones wasted no time in using that to her advantage. With the ball at her feet and space up the left side of the field, the Menlo Park, Calif., native took a touch into the front third and sent an apparent cross toward junior midfielder Maggie Graham at the back post.
The ball sailed over Graham’s head and into the goal, however, appearing to give East Carolina goalie Maeve English pause just long enough to grant the Blue Devils a lead they would not relinquish.
“It’s great for Sophie to get off and score a goal,” Church said. “It’s an area that she’s been working on.”
Duke’s opening-night win largely came on the shoulders of its defense, which kept the Pirates’ offense dormant for the majority of the game. East Carolina (0-1) only registered its first shot in the opening minutes of the second half and was outshot 15-1 by the end of the night. Graduate student Jenna Royson, a Georgetown transfer and older sister of junior defender Emily Royson, notably contributed 76 quality minutes on the backline in her first Duke start.
The Pirates came out firing in the second half, earning a pair of early set pieces and threatening to even the score. It was a run unsustained, though, as Duke regained control of the game and dominated possession for the last 30-plus minutes. Excluding an exciting final minute of play, East Carolina had few opportunities late in the game. Ruthie Jones was able to enjoy a relatively uneventful night in net, securing the shutout without having to record a save.
“The stats said [East Carolina] had one shot, I don’t even remember the shot that they had,” Church said. “I think we did a good job of not letting them get out in transition.”
Thursday night’s win came without plenty of important players for the Blue Devils: Sophomore midfielder Michelle Cooper, the reigning ACC and National Freshman of the Year, and freshman midfielder Carina Lageyre are wrapping up with international play at the FIFA U20 Women's World Cup. Olivia Migli, Grace Watkins and Julia Hannon were each notably absent for the Blue Devils as well.
As such, three Duke freshmen were included in the starting 11 to kick off the new season. Elle Piper played more than half the game on the outside of the defense, Illinois native Devin Lynch played all 90 minutes in the midfield and striker Kat Rader was particularly impressive in the front third. Rader, the fifth-ranked recruit nationally in this year’s freshman class, led all players with seven shots Thursday—no other Blue Devil or Pirate had more than two.
“We thought all three of them played well,” Church said of the trio of freshmen. “I thought Devin Lynch especially. I thought she really connected some passes, gave some really nice little balls, strike a ball for distance.”
As an aside, Thursday’s matchup marked somewhat of a homecoming for Church, who began his coaching career at East Carolina with the men’s soccer team in 1982. Fans packed Johnson Stadium in what was both his return and first-year Pirates head coach Gary Higgins’ debut, setting a new attendance record with 1,335 fans in the stands.
Next, the Blue Devils return home Sunday to open play at Koskinen Stadium against UNC Greensboro. The Spartans took their first game 2-1 on the road against Charlotte.
“It’s great to get a win coming back,” Church said. “So we’re excited to be 1-0, but we know that there’s a lot more in us, and we got to bring that out by the time we get to play [UNC Greensboro] on Sunday night.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.