‘Always going to be a bloodbath’: Duke women’s soccer looks to shift national landscape against No. 2 North Carolina

<p>The Blue Devils will look to win their first-ever home game against North Carolina.&nbsp;</p>

The Blue Devils will look to win their first-ever home game against North Carolina. 

Last year, Duke rolled into Chapel Hill and handed North Carolina its first Tobacco Road rivalry loss since 2015. After the game, Blue Devil captain Caitlin Cosme declared, “There's a new era, and it's a Duke era. And I never want to go back.”

Now, when the two teams face off at 8 p.m. Thursday at Koskinen Stadium, Duke not only has an opportunity to affirm Cosme’s declaration but to fundamentally shift the landscape of women’s soccer.

“I think the past few years have been elevating that confidence [that we can beat North Carolina] for us,” graduate student Mackenzie Pluck told The Chronicle. “We always had the talent; it's more so believing in ourselves and knowing we can do it [that] has been mentally hard for us. So I think, after last year and just the previous years, that the alumni have provided for us and given us a platform to really perform high and believe in ourselves and know how good we are.”

Despite the prominence of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry in almost every sport and the Blue Devils' reputation as a top-five or top-10 program in the country, the Tar Heels have dominated their matchups on the pitch. North Carolina owns a 21-3-3 all-time record against Duke, is unbeaten at Koskinen Stadium and has never taken back-to-back losses against the Blue Devils.

“Our sport, you still gotta go through North Carolina,” said Duke head coach Robbie Church. “With 21 National Championships, it still goes through them. And [beating them] is like, ‘Okay, we can be a big player on a national stage.’”

But times are changing. The Tar Heels have gone nearly a decade without a national title—which garners crocodile tears from most programs across the country—but it is a notable drought for a team that won 17 of the first 22 NCAA tournaments. Since 2008, North Carolina has only one more regular-season ACC title than Duke. A key factor in that was the emergence of Florida State and Virginia as national powers, but the former saw its coach and much of its historic talent leave this summer, and the latter hasn’t quite reached the top tier of recruiting that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have occupied.

Duke’s emergence as a true national power came as the 2000s turned into the 2010s and the consistently overachieving underdogs started to draw more elite recruits. The Blue Devils were still a tier below North Carolina and Stanford, though, until recently. The 2015 national runner-up and 2017 College Cup teams helped fuel another jump into the elite class of recruiting, yielding players like Sophie Jones, Emily Royson and Michelle Cooper. Over the past few years, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have basically recruited at the same level.

Duke has started the 2022 season by helping set attendance records in its visits to East Carolina and TCU, and drew Knoxville, Tenn.’s second-largest nonconference crowd since 2015, behind only an NCAA tournament game last November. But there is still one thing standing between the Blue Devils and the sport’s peak: North Carolina. When the Tobacco Road rivalry renews Thursday, Duke will field a roster with three players who were in-state recruits; North Carolina will feature 11. There are more Blue Devils from California than from the state of North Carolina.

In attendance Thursday will be elite uncommitted recruits from the next couple of freshman classes. If Duke can notch its first-ever set of back-to-back wins against the Tar Heels, it could overtake them both on and off the pitch for the 2020s.

“It's Carolina-Duke. It's your chance to contribute to the rivalry,” said Church. “I think they'll see once they get out on the field, that the stadium is just going to be packed… We're becoming a really big draw. And we're setting records going to other people's stadiums.…

“One of the things I have respect for Carolina is that they've done this for 20 years… It's not easy. There's a lot of pressure on our kids.”

If a packed house, under the Thursday night lights, on national television, against an archrival is not enough pressure, there is also the fact that the game’s winner has the inside track to a No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the NCAA tournament.

“Anytime we play UNC, despite the rankings, it’s always going to be a bloodbath. It’s just a highly competitive game and it’s just all about who wants it more,” said Pluck. “The stakes are still high. [North Carolina]’s a high-caliber program. Everyone on that team’s good. Everyone on our team’s good. It’s just, positionally, who’s gonna outplay and outperform each other.”


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