As the sun set on Koskinen Stadium Thursday, a tale of twos began to unfold—two halves, two superstar performances and two goals to make the difference.
The seventh-ranked Blue Devils outlasted unranked Wake Forest in a 2-1 victory behind two early goals from freshman Kat Rader and spectacular defensive play from senior goalkeeper Ruthie Jones. The win avenges not only Duke’s Sunday 1-0 loss to No. 2 Virginia but also the Blue Devils’ first-round ACC tournament loss to the Demon Deacons a season ago.
“Really good win. Really big three points for us here,” said head coach Robbie Church after the game. “They’re a really good team and they did what Wake Forest does which is cause chaos … but I thought we had complete control of the game.”
Duke (9-3, 4-1 in the ACC) came out with a vengeance from the opening whistle, showing speed and prowess up top early on. It took only 2:33 for the Blue Devils to draw blood, their fastest goal of the season. Junior midfielder Maggie Graham sliced a through ball to graduate midfielder Mackenzie Pluck, who made quick work of her defender along the end line to send in a cross to the waiting feet of Rader. Settling a low bouncing ball with ease, she sent the ball past Wake Forest goalkeeper Kaitlyn Parks to put Duke up 1-0.
But Rader was hungry for more. Less than 10 minutes later, sophomore forward Michelle Cooper showed off her nifty footwork to volley the ball over her shoulder into Rader’s path. Cutting past her defender in the box, Rader fired it home to the bottom right corner past a diving Parks to bring the score to 2-0.
“She’s now starting to really play in the ACC. You can see that she’s confident, she moves well and she’s confident in scoring goals,” said Church of Rader.
“Against Virginia, I struggled a little finishing, so I just wanted to turn the page and get back to winning in the ACC,” said Rader of her performance.
It seemed as if the freshman was on track to be the star of the night. Then, Jones entered the conversation.
At first, Jones appeared to be having a rare off night with uncharacteristic errors. In the 27th minute, the Blue Devil goalkeeper attempted a pass up the middle of the field to her awaiting teammate Sophie Jones. Unfortunately for Duke, Demon Deacon graduate midfielder Giovanna Demarco was lying in wait. The minute the ball left the keeper’s feet, Demarco pounced, stealing the ball away just outside the 18-yard box before pounding it right past a diving Ruthie Jones to put Wake Forest on the board at 2-1. Duke almost gave up another first-half opportunity to Demarco, who fired one off of the crossbar.
Ruthie Jones did not let the mistake define her, proceeding to have a stellar second half with two key saves on three Demon Deacon shots. With her teammates struggling to finish in the final third and the game quickly regressing into a chippy scramble, the senior keeper stepped up to the plate. In the 72nd minute, Wake Forest sophomore midfielder Emily Morris fired a rocket at the lower right corner, but Jones made the diving save to protect the Blue Devil lead.
“Every action after that [mistake in the first half] needed to be clean and needed to be perfect. And that’s what I tried to do,” said Jones.
Yet the goalkeeper was not done with her impressive performance. With less than a minute to play, junior midfielder Olivia Migli gave up a foul just outside the 18-yard box, giving the Demon Deacons (8-3-2, 2-3) a final opportunity to walk out of Koskinen with a tie. Once again, Jones was up to the task. Despite a beautiful free kick to the upper right corner, Ruthie Jones tapped it away to preserve the win.
“She would love to have that goal back, but I was so proud of her because she made a big-time save at the end to sort of save the game,” said Church of Jones.
As Duke looks to get back to its winning ways, finishing will be crucial to its success. With many missed opportunities in the second half due to crosses gone awry and an absence of players in the box, a game that could have been a beatdown became more of a bloodbath. Moving forward, the team must capitalize on its great chemistry, deep bench and infectious energy to connect in the final third as it progresses in ACC play.
“We gotta keep working in the final third,” said Church. “We had some great combinations and created a lot of opportunities, we just gotta continue to time our runs better and get more people in the box. We missed some [chances] that come back to bite you … we just have to keep working on finishing those.”
The Blue Devils will be back in action in ACC play Sunday as they take on No. 13 Pittsburgh at 1 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium.
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