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No. 12 Duke women’s soccer stumbles in first-place showdown at Florida State

Duke dropped an important match on the road, falling 5-1 to Florida State.
Duke dropped an important match on the road, falling 5-1 to Florida State.

When John Krasinski and Steve Carrell tried to lead the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch as co-managers in “The Office,” audiences and fellow tired-of-the-bickering employees learned that sometimes, it’s best to have only one at the top.

So with No. 12 Duke and No. 4 Florida State tied for first place in the ACC, the Seminoles took over as the sole leader after a 5-1 victory in Tallahassee, Fla., Thursday evening, ending the Blue Devils’ co-reign of the conference and undefeated status on the road this season.

“For us, to be honest, we didn’t really see this coming,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said after the game. “We’ve had a great mentality for most of the year.​​ Today, we were just bossed around the field. They were better than we were in all categories. Their mentality was an ACC championship mentality—for playing for first place. Our mentality did not reach that level that theirs did.”

The match was physical right from the opening whistle, with Duke sophomore forward Michelle Cooper and the Seminoles’ Onyi Echegini both logging fouls within the first two minutes. Both teams sought to apply high pressure early on, as the Seminoles (10-1-2, 6-1-0 in the ACC) tried with some success to prevent the Blue Devils’ midfield from playing the ball into Cooper and graduate midfielder Mackenzie Pluck.

It was soon Duke (10-4, 5-2) that had control of the flow, with Pluck and Cooper setting up several key scoring opportunities for the Blue Devils. Cooper stole the ball from junior defender Lauren Flynn, sending the ball into the 18-yard box to find Pluck, who slid to send the ball toward the net but had her shot deflected for a Duke corner kick. A quick shot from freshman forward Kat Rader also had the Seminole defense scrambling to recover.

“The first half, I thought—especially at the beginning of the first half—offensively, we played too fast. We were trying to force things and trying to play too fast,” Church said.

Florida State’s composure allowed it to take advantage of this, as senior Jenna Nighswonger easily carried the ball down the field, glancing up to see Jody Brown and touching the ball over the heads of Duke’s backline. The lob met the feet of Brown, who had penetrated a gap in the defense. There was no pressure on Brown as she took a touch and slotted the ball into the far post, as Duke goalkeeper Ruthie Jones hit the turf but couldn’t get in front of the shot.

Chants of “F-S-U” rang loud across the Seminole Soccer Complex with the home team now holding a 1-0 lead, but they were silenced just moments later when Duke midfielder Sophie Jones played a high ball into Florida State’s 18-yard box on a free kick, which found the head of Florida State senior LeiLanni Nesbeth. The header ricocheted off the side post of the Seminoles’ net, and so did junior Maggie Graham’s subsequent follow-up attempt. Quite literally, enter Duke junior Grace Watkins—who was substituted into the game only two minutes beforehand—who finally poked the ball into the back of the net for the equalizer.

The rest of the opening 45 minutes were less remarkable, with both teams exchanging relaxed possession runs without the same amount of physicality as viewers saw in the opening stretch. 

“In the second part of the first half, we made some adjustments and found the goal,” Church said. “And then I thought we were really the better team."

But before Thursday’s match, 22 of Florida State’s 35 goals in the 2022 season had come in second halves—and when the Seminoles ran off the field in high spirits at the whistle, it might have been foreshadowing of what was to come.

The second half started off as a mirror image of the first, with one team dominating early possession and shot opportunities—but it was the Seminoles, who notched two goals in less than 10 minutes. The first again featured Brown invading the back line and finding her composure before sending the ball into the far side of the net, this time off a pass from Echegini. Four minutes later, instead of Sophie Jones, it was Nighswonger who sent the ball into the 18-yard box on a free kick, finding the head of junior forward Beata Olsson, who lost her defensive mark and found herself open in front of Ruthie Jones. The graduate goalkeeper jumped out in an attempt to get a touch on the ball, but Olsson slotted the ball over her dive and found the net to put the Seminoles up 3-1.

“They just came out of the locker room and just put us under so much pressure. They scored that goal early, and then followed that goal up with another goal,” Church said. “That just broke our spirits.”

Florida State remained dangerous in Duke’s 18-yard box for the remainder of the half, beginning with Nighswonger slicing a high ball over the heads of Duke’s defense that was deflected after a leap from Jones. On the resulting corner kick, Nighswonger again led the charge, sending the ball to the feet of Nesbeth, who—despite being swarmed by Duke’s defense—put Florida State up by three with a sharp upward finish. The final goal of the night was again a matter of the Seminoles beating their mark, with freshman forward Olivia Garcia maneuvering around Duke’s defense to easily receive a high ball from the midfield and tap it into the net.

But as Church noted after the game, “This league is all about responding a little bit,” discussing how Thursday represented an important moment for the Seminoles after a 4-0 loss Sunday to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Now, when the Blue Devils take on Clemson Oct. 20 in South Carolina, it’s their turn.

“You have to play like each game is a championship game, and you have to have that type of championship mentality,” Church said. “That’s tough to do the whole season, but that’s what this type of game calls for. And we will be okay, we will respond, and we will be better. We’ll be set and ready to play Clemson on Thursday. And I think you’ll see that mentality return to us.”


Leah Boyd

Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.

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