A lot can happen in 40 years.
In the last four decades, Germany went from two countries to one, Blockbuster went out of business, the global population doubled, Leonardo DiCaprio was born, slept in a bear and won an Oscar, “Star Wars” became the biggest thing since sliced bread and the Chicago Cubs, after more than 100 years, finally won a World Series. And for the first time since 1982, Duke finished a regular season unbeaten.
As the sun set over Thompson Field at Virginia Tech’s similarly gothic campus in Blacksburg, Va., Friday evening, the third-ranked Blue Devils thoroughly and comprehensively outclassed the hapless Hokies 1-0 to close the lid on their undefeated regular season. The result keeps goalkeeper Eliot Hamill atop the nation in save percentage and wraps up a remarkable defensive record that saw Duke concede an NCAA-best five goals and log 11 clean sheets in 15 games. It also secures the Blue Devils a second ACC Coastal Division title in as many years.
“Everyone's overjoyed,” head coach John Kerr said after the game. “It's been a lot of hard work over a long period of time, and all these players have been playing soccer since they were very young. To get to this situation, where you become ACC champions in the toughest league in the country, is a pretty big feat.”
Forward Scotty Taylor started the celebrations with a sliding, scrappy goal midway through the first half. After a relentless run by captain Peter Stroud, junior midfielder Nick Pariano weaved his way through the box to offload the ball to Taylor’s outstretched foot beyond a helpless Hokie goalkeeper.
It was by no means the cleanest nor most impressive goal the Blue Devils (11-0-4, 5-0-3 in the ACC) scored this season—Shakur Mohammed’s long-range curler versus Louisville takes that cake—but it was emblematic of the three words that have made this Duke group so successful this season: Getting it done.
The Blue Devils have played some stunning soccer this season, but this win was not the same fluid, free-flowing spectacle we have seen from Kerr and company against the likes of Wake Forest, Michigan and Louisville. Regardless, Duke is unbeaten through 15 games for a reason; clinical offense combined with a relentless midfield and strangling defense has been a cosmic cocktail for the Blue Devils, and even if some games were prettier than others, that special sauce has made this group one tough nut to crack.
“It's amazing,” Kerr said of Duke’s defensive record. “The schedule that we play is pretty rough, and we're shutting out teams that are really top-10, top-15 in the country. So we're very proud of the effort that we put into defending and it's really been a strong suit for us this year.”
Sitting just under No. 18 Virginia in the ACC Coastal standings at kickoff, the Blue Devils needed a win and a bit of help from local rival North Carolina to take the division for the second-straight year. In any case, Duke needed three points from its trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains if it wanted a shot.
It delivered. As has become customary for the country’s top defensive unit, the stinginess of Hamill in net and the trio of Kamran Acito, Antino Lopez and Amir Daley—who threatened from the right flank throughout the match—at the back anchored Duke’s dominant attacking and midfield displays, where Stroud’s tireless running and the crafty footwork of Mohammed and Luke Thomas up front pinned the Hokies (2-13-1, 0-8-0) into their own half from start to finish.
“One of the goals we had for our season was to do one better than we did last year and we had a pretty good season last year,” Kerr said. “That was to win the ACC regular season outright, which we did.”
With just a few minutes to play in the second half, Virginia Tech almost broke Blue Devil hearts with a thumping effort from distance that cannoned off Hamill’s gloves and another header that just veered beyond the left post.
“[Hamill] has had an incredible season,” Kerr said. “Everything that he's learned throughout his life and then the past four years here playing for Duke soccer, he’s really reaping the benefits of his work … That's really helping us get to the next level.”
Critics will point out that the scoreline likely should have been more commanding in Duke’s favor. Felix Barajas was stopped point-blank by the outstretched glove of Virginia Tech goalkeeper Ben Martino late in the first half and Thomas was denied at the near post by a similarly excellent save in the second period, with a late potential penalty as Daley fell in the box waved on by the referee.
Mohammed’s nine goals on the season and Taylor’s talented Friday finish nonetheless prove that when Duke has chances it more than often makes the most of them. As the Blue Devils head into a grueling ACC tournament gauntlet, however, Kerr will want to make sure that his squad’s shooting boots are tied on tight.
Despite the inevitable euphoria, an undefeated path to the postseason puts a target on a team’s back. Duke shook the target on its back Friday evening from a Hokie unit looking for its first conference win of the year, but as bigger fish beckon in the coming weeks, these Blue Devils will need to use every tool in their locker to avenge 2021’s heartbreaking ACC tournament final defeat to Notre Dame to keep this remarkable run going.
With its 40-year wait for another unbeaten regular season officially in the past, it has been a season to remember for Kerr and his Duke team. Next—and say it quietly—is the difficult pursuit of bringing a second national title to Koskinen Stadium.
A lot can change in 40 years. The Blue Devils have gone undefeated, but 36 years on from that fabled night in 1986—when Kerr won the university’s first-ever NCAA championship with the Blue Devils—it might just be time for more history to be made.
No. 1-seed Duke begins its postseason Nov. 6 at home against the winner of the first-round matchup between Clemson and Notre Dame.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.