Column: On Duke women’s soccer, pain, virtue and the absurd

Duke celebrates during a thrilling loss in penalties to North Carolina at the ACC tournament in Cary, N.C.
Duke celebrates during a thrilling loss in penalties to North Carolina at the ACC tournament in Cary, N.C.

Last year’s loss to Santa Clara marked the end of the collegiate careers of six longtime Blue Devils; three are now in the NWSL. This year’s 3-2 overtime loss to No. 1-seed Alabama, Duke’s third-straight exit in the Elite Eight, ends up to nine Blue Devil careers, including as many as four future NWSL players, and marks the last time two pairs of sisters will play together.

“I think we gotta put it in perspective. We have 341 teams, I think, in women’s soccer, and we’ve finished in the top eight each of the last three years. There’s so many programs that would die to do that,” Duke head coach Robbie Church told The Chronicle. “And I’m very, very proud of that part of it. But, we also are human and we want more. We all want more, we want to go to College Cups. I want these players to experience their hard work to play in the College Cup, there’s something special about it. I’d like to go back there. ... You want more, and ... it’s really hard when you lose—hits you really, really hard.”

There is a Sisyphean nature to Duke, if Sisyphus could get his boulder over the hill and immediately discover another, even larger hill staring him down. Of the last 22 times the Blue Devils have played Florida State, they have won four times, and all four came in seasons that ended in devastating fashion. Of the 29 times the Blue Devils have played North Carolina, they have won three times, and those three came in seasons in which Duke lost the rematch, missed the ACC tournament entirely and was eliminated in the conference quarterfinals at home on an own goal, respectively.

I accidentally watched the 2021 national championship shootout with center back Katie Groff. The last time she had spoken to one of our reporters was a month and a half prior, after the Blue Devils had beaten Florida State for their fifth top-15 win in what had been a magical season. Their upset loss to Santa Clara, Duke’s first home postseason loss in 24 years, kept us from spending that weekend in San Jose, Calif. For myself and Jonathan Browning, The Chronicle’s other women’s soccer beat writer and my best friend, that would have been a storybook ending to our coverage together.

Instead, Groff and I watched as Florida State cemented itself as arguably the sport’s greatest team in more than a decade. The one reason it wasn’t an undefeated national champion was the loss to Duke.

I asked Groff if the pain of having lost in the Elite Eight was made more acute by Florida State winning the title. It was, she said, because it just made her feel like it “should have been us.”

The biggest lie we tell ourselves about sports—both as fans and as journalists—is that the stories that define sports, the reasons that we emotionally invest ourselves in a group of strangers, are in service of an eventual dramatic finish. That, win or lose, it will culminate in a final chance to etch our names into history.

The second-biggest lie we tell ourselves is that our suffering is just. That the more we suffer, the bigger our payoff when we finally overcome our challenges—when, not if. Withstanding the pain is a virtue that simply makes us deserving of even greater eventual success.

The third-biggest lie we tell ourselves is that, not only do those that have suffered most earn the most cathartic breakthroughs, but doubly so if they possess some measure of greatness. We believe not only in meritocracy, but that our best and brightest will in time conquer every mountain that stands in their path.

In truth, as Duke has shown time and time again, there is no such thing as virtuous suffering. Neither soccer nor the universe at large operates on the interests of its most downtrodden. The extent to which the Blue Devils have suffered is immaterial to a sport in which every game of consequence must result in a winner and a loser, based only upon which team was more successful for just one match.

Neither is there any volume of suffering that constitutes a saturation point; the human brain allows for an infinite capacity for any kind of emotion, as, paradoxically, do the sports that humans have created that often serve to distract themselves from thinking about these emotions.

Least of all is there any consideration for who it is that suffers. That Sophie Jones and Ruthie Jones are multi-time All-ACC honorees and presumptive first-round NWSL draft picks who just lost their third-straight Elite Eight appearance are facts that have entirely no bearing upon each other.

“It’s just so much emotion, and then it just ends. It just ends,” said Church. “You blow the whistle, and the game’s over, and kids are in tears, and staff is brokenhearted and everything you’ve put in since Aug. 2 is over. Your goal is to go to the College Cup, and you’re so close to that. It’s over at that time, and it’s just how it ends. I don’t know how else to say it, but it’s really cruel. Because there you are, just playing as hard as you can, and then the whistle blows and it’s over. It’s just done. There’s nothing else to play for, there’s nothing to get ready for, it’s no more.”

There is an extraordinarily contrived platitude to be stated from how this Duke program has so eloquently embodied the cold and unfeeling whims of the universe, and the wanton sociopolitical cruelty so often exercised by ruling classes upon those who have already suffered the most. But what is most striking about this program is how its embodiment of these themes runs contrary to the very purpose of sporting; the concept of a recreational activity to enrich students at the highest academic level is severely undermined by the number of tears shed by those players on a widely available streaming platform. In light of this, the Blue Devils’ participation in this game barring their going home for Thanksgiving either compounds the cruelty or crosses into farce. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference.

This is not to say that the severity of Duke’s emotional whiplashes or its ability to make heartbreak mundane is particularly unique. I was born and raised a Mets fan, an experience Chronicle alum Devin Gordon, Trinity ‘98, once described as “experiencing all the highs and lows of sports in as short a time frame as possible.” I tried to quit the fandom early on, returning all my jerseys and souvenirs to my mom and subsequently not watching baseball for several years. And yet over the past 7.5 years, I have watched the vast majority of games played by a team whose owners spent a decade and a half operating with a reduced payroll because they invested too much money with Bernie Madoff.

My family has been, as my mother would say, “long-suffering Mets fans” for three generations. There are cousins I speak to several times a week because of this genetic condition. One of my warmest memories to this day is a family reunion from a few years ago, watching a wildly improbable Mets comeback with a number of family members as we all evolved from disaffection to extreme joy, trying not to celebrate too loudly so we wouldn’t wake the kids, thanks to the exploits of a mostly mediocre team that was several spots out of the playoffs for most of the season. It’s a fandom that connects me to my family more consistently than just about any other thing, and to my boss and to friends and to strangers in a deeply emotional way.

The defining feature of Mets fandom is an acceptance of the wanton cruelty of the universe. An embracement of the absurd is necessary to simply survive the experience—perhaps this is what my mom wanted to teach me. The team’s biggest fans are not those who are heavily invested in the outcomes of its individual games, but those who know that wins and losses are inconsequential to The Mets Experience.

Were my appreciation of this era of Duke women’s soccer limited to its wins and losses, I would have little to show for it beyond a few thousand pageviews and significantly more ground to cover with my therapist. During the postgame presser from Tuscaloosa, Ala., while Michelle Cooper answered a question about the record crowd, Church slowly looked around, as if searching for an answer to how the program had continued to come up short. The only thing he seemed to find was my equally dejected expression.

We made eye contact, but after the past few years, all I could muster was a desolate nod. Church could only return the gesture. At least there was that solidarity.


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