Duke women's soccer gets revenge against Virginia, advances to ACC tournament semifinals

Duke stole home-field advantage from Virginia, winning Sunday's match in Charlottesville, Va., 2-1.
Duke stole home-field advantage from Virginia, winning Sunday's match in Charlottesville, Va., 2-1.

Five years ago on a clement evening in Charleston, S.C., Duke and Virginia competed in a nail-biter decided just 1:27 into the second half. Duke forward Ella Stevens, served the ball, headed it past goalkeeper Laurel Ivory and into the net to start and end the night’s scoring. Due to an impenetrable Duke defense, the Blue Devils punched the ticket of their dreams to the ACC tournament finals. 

And after years of losses and ties against the Cavaliers since that last win in 2017, the same cheers and excitement flashed across the players donning royal blue Sunday night, as Duke punched its ticket to the next round once more.

Passion for the world’s most popular game ignited the first-round match in Charlottesville, Va., as the fifth-seeded Blue Devils took on No. 4-seed Virginia for a chance to advance to the semifinals of the ACC tournament. Competing at Klöckner Stadium in front of a roaring crowd that lined both sides of the pitch, the teams battled to maintain possession and strike first. Though Duke held the advantage as the game began, the Cavaliers remained competitive against their blue-clad competitors before the half closed out. But by the end of the second, the scoreboard showed a 2-1 victory in the Blue Devils’ favor.

“This is what you coach for—a game like this,” head coach Robbie Church said after the game. “A great Virginia team, a wonderful place to play. We’ve had a lot of memories up here. So we’ve had a lot of great games over the years, and we had so much energy from our team today. We’re just so proud of our team with the grit we showed.”

The beginning of the second half was defined by headers and aggressive movement to maintain possession. But a potent defense on both sides meant no shots on goal and to take the lead, one team would need to strategize and read its opponent's movements before they happened without making any hasty decisions.

In the 55th minute, three defenders stood in front of forward Kat Rader, watching her eyes and feet for her next move after the freshman received the ball from Michelle Cooper. Moving back and opening an opportunity for herself, the candidate for ACC Freshman of the Year saw a clear chance and took it to put the Blue Devils up 2-1.

"We got through the first half, and then we kind of changed tactics a little bit in the second half and pushed ourselves higher," Church said. "We were like, let's go, let's try to get forward on transition. And then we did, Kat [Rader] scored a beautiful goal. And that put everybody's energy up."

Passed the ball by Rader, sophomore striker Cooper darted with wide strides across the grass to point her toe, lean back and aim. Just 2:44 into the game, her shot found the left side of the net, marking Cooper’s 13th goal this season and giving Duke the lead. 

Competing in a 4-4-2 formation, the Duke defense prevailed by beating the Cavaliers' attack. On Virginia’s first serious attempt toward the net, the Blue Devils' defense proved efficient as graduate defender Jenna Royson outpaced the Cavalier moving toward senior goalkeeper Ruthie Jones’ keep. The Blue Devils would be a difficult target to move past for Virginia to advance.

“We had some people, Katie Groff, I thought was really unbelievable in the second half, winning first balls, really playing hard,” Church said of the defensive performances. “Olivia Migli played very, very well as a wide player in the second half, the Roysons [Jenna and Emily], both of them in the middle field, Delaney Graham, I mean, through our whole roster—they played well.”

But the momentum Duke seized in the first few minutes was not enough to keep the score in its favor. In its last two regular-season games, played against Louisville and Notre Dame, the Blue Devils scored first. Though against the Cardinals that turned into three more successful attempts to win outright, it meant a draw against the Fighting Irish. And just like Notre Dame, a talented Virginia attack came within reach of the lead Sunday. 

As graduate midfielder Delaney Graham and Royson stood guard at the top of the penalty box, Virginia’s Alexa Spaanstra and Lia Godfrey approached, the latter holding onto the ball. The Cavalier faithful shouted for a goal as Godfrey cut in front of Spaanstra. Spaanstra moved toward the goal box, quickly receiving the ball from Godfrey. Soon enough, with a fiery blow from Spaanstra, the ball was in the back of the net and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blared over the stadium speakers. 

But despite the goal, with 10 total shots by the Cavaliers throughout the night, it was clear that defense was the name of the game, and the Blue Devils were the winners.

“We stepped up and we blocked shots really well. We stepped up and we got on the end of crosses well,” Church said. “...I thought [the defenders] did a really good job, in defending 1-v1 and Ruthie, for us, anchors everything. She was great on corner kick. She controlled the box. She controlled crosses. She made herself picks. She had a great presence back there. She played like how you expect an all-American to play.” 

Advancing to the second round with the win, Duke will return to its home state to face No. 1-seed North Carolina at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Cary, N.C. The Blue Devils fell to the Tar Heels 3-0 in September, but proved Sunday night that they have what it takes for another rematch win.


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