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Heartbreaking Elite Eight loss to Creighton forces Duke men's soccer to bid farewell to special season

Graduate goalkeeper Eliot Hamill sends the ball forward during Duke's quarterfinal loss to Creighton.
Graduate goalkeeper Eliot Hamill sends the ball forward during Duke's quarterfinal loss to Creighton.

The once-jubilant crowd had long since scattered and the rain had long since died down, but a dull gray fog lingered over Koskinen Stadium. Players pulled their shirts over their faces in disbelief, head coach John Kerr paced around pensively and Eliot Hamill’s goalie gloves hung at his wrists as he tearfully embraced his teammates for the final time. 

It was a somber end to a stellar season, and if not for a few millimeters here and there, some slight swings of luck and the deathly kiss of the post, it could have been different.

No. 7-seed Duke’s 3-2 heartbreaker of a loss to Creighton Saturday afternoon may have been just its second of the season, but it will undoubtedly have stung the most. The Blue Devils tried every tool in their locker to break through the Bluejay back line—once to tie and throughout the second half to claw back from two down—but could not seal the deal. They conceded one goal at the near post that Hamill likely could have saved, another goal that he seemingly did save and one that cannoned off the pipe from 35 yards out that nobody could have saved.

It was a classic case of the cruel incongruence between what you deserve and what you often get.

That was Saturday’s narrative. Duke had 19 more corners, 11 more shots, six more shots on target, hit the post from point-blank range and was stymied by a ridiculous 14 saves by Creighton goalkeeper Paul Kruse. The Blue Devils, as Kerr remarked postgame, “threw the kitchen sink at them,” but it just wasn’t enough. For all their second-half dominance, for all the last-gasp heroics of freshmen Kamran Acito and Axel Gudbjornsson in defense, for all of Shakur Mohammed’s crafty dribbling, Peter Stroud’s tireless midfield engine and Amir Daley’s pinpoint crossing accuracy, no dividends were paid and no College Cup awaits.

Duke should have won this game and done so comfortably. Undefeated through the regular season in college soccer’s toughest conference, featuring four players on All-ACC teams and with home-field advantage, the Blue Devils had the draw, the players, the crowd and the balance of play to charge into the national semifinal on a high.

Creighton was not to be underestimated—three consecutive away wins against seeded opponents proves that—and caused Duke serious problems. The Bluejays were dangerous on the break and scored three times, no matter how fortuitous those goals may have been, and defended stoutly when it was required. They played giant-killers beautifully, and that deserves recognition.

Nonetheless, it was underwhelming for the home team.

A point of solace amid the silent reflection at full time is that the vast majority of Duke’s players will return in 2023 for another shot at the elusive top prize, with one notable exception: Hamill saw his successful and inspiring college career come to the most brutal of conclusions.

“What an example he's been to come in as a recruited walk-on, to be patient, to get better, to fight for a spot and to go through a lot of adversity,” Kerr said of his graduate goalkeeper. “He was our leader, he was our go-to guy, he was the heartbeat of the team and really stepped forward.”

“I feel sorry for him,” Kerr added. “That's not the way he wants to go out. None of us wanted him to go out that way.”

At one point this season, Hamill led the nation in save percentage and goals conceded—and by a fair margin, too. He was an instrumental piece of Duke’s stingy defensive unit that only saw five goals sneak in across the 15-game conference season and a key bit of veteran leadership on a team that, year after year, is discovering and crafting its identity.

Saturday’s loss should not overshadow an overwhelmingly encouraging season for the Blue Devils. Equally, it should not be brushed off as an isolated incident; under the brightest lights of the season so far, Duke faltered, and in the process bid its 36-year-long hopes for a second piece of NCAA hardware adieu. That will be a tough pill to swallow.

Nevertheless, living in the past does nothing except trap one in it. What is important is that the Blue Devils pick their heads up, see the forest for the trees—an outright ACC regular-season title, a slew of exceptional individual performances, a one-of-a-kind defensive record—and move on.

The 2023 season will bring change, but it is nothing that this team will not be able to handle. Duke won four games two seasons ago and is now disappointed with an exit in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals—big steps for a program that should arguably be taking baby steps.

“It’s been an amazing season,” Kerr said. “The players were bought in from not just this, August when we started preseason, they've been bought in for a while and it shows … This team is so good and so talented, that hopefully these younger guys keep with it and emerge and get better and we keep progressing as a team.”


Andrew Long | Blue Zone editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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