Last season, Duke had the makings of a College Cup-bound team — immense talent, steadfast teamwork and unrivaled determination. With a 15-5-3 overall record and one of the best strikers in the country with Michelle Cooper, it seemed as though head coach Robbie Church’s squad might hoist a trophy. A berth to the biggest event in college soccer, however, proved out of reach. Once more losing in the NCAA quarterfinals, the Blue Devils exited the road to a national championship in a double-overtime loss to No. 3 Alabama.
Adding to the sting of defeat, Duke lost a lot of veteran talent to the offseason. Cooper, the 2022 MAC Hermann Trophy winner, was drafted second overall in the NWSL to the Kansas City Current. She was joined in the professional ranks by teammates Sophie Jones, Delaney Graham and Mackenzie Pluck. On top of that, senior goalkeeper Ruthie Jones along with graduate student defender Jenna Royson have since departed.
Despite heavy losses, this Blue Devil team is shaping up to flip the script and earn a trip to the College Cup. With many leadership vacancies to fill, the likes of seniors Maggie Graham, Katie Groff, Olivia Migli and Emily Royson are ready to step up to the challenge. They will be joined in their quest for glory by a host of younger talent, namely headlined by sophomore Kat Rader, the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year with 29 points to her name last season.
“Kat had a terrific game against South Carolina,” Church said about the team’s Aug. 10 preseason game. “I think we are developing players to play around her.”
That’s not to say that this Duke team’s journey will be an easy one. With difficult contests against the perennial ACC powerhouses of North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia and Notre Dame, along with nonconference matchups against Stanford and Southern California, the group will have to fight tooth and nail for each and every win. The Blue Devils, however, carry a well-balanced mix of experience and youth, making them a serious contender for the national title.
“This is a team that has a big heart and a big will,” Church said. “This team wants to be very, very good.”
New player to watch: Mia Minestrella
The departure of a prolific goal scorer in Cooper left the Blue Devils with a big question mark for the upcoming season. The arrival of Mia Minestrella, however, could be the much-needed answer for Duke and its offensive uncertainties.
Minestrella is a highly decorated striker coming out of Redondo Union High School. Her continued participation on the U.S. Women’s National U-17 and U-20 teams is one sign of her prowess, along with the 33 goals and 14 assists that she tallied in her junior year. On the pitch, the freshman’s shooting and on-the-ball wizardry give her an edge over most other forwards. She has a knack for finding the back of the net, and her creativity with the ball helps her locate and assist wingers. It didn’t take long for her to put her brilliance on full display. In just two exhibition games, Minestrella has already scored and assisted once for Duke.
Make no mistake, this is only the start for the Redondo Beach, Calif., native: Minnestrella’s crowd-pleasing goals will soon decorate storied Koskinen Stadium. -Brent Yoo
Returning player to watch: Kat Rader
Striker Kat Rader arrived in Durham last fall and instantly became a must-watch sensation alongside her partner-in-crime Cooper. In her freshman year, Rader led her class nationally with 29 total points, along with dominating the ACC with 12 points against conference opponents. Rader also thrived when it mattered most, scoring five game-winning goals. Her prowess did not go unnoticed, as Rader won ACC Freshman of the Year as well as a spot on her TopDrawerSoccer Freshman Best XI First Team distinction. The expectations for this year are sky high, as Rader was named to the Preseason All-ACC team. With the departure of Cooper for the NWSL, Rader will have to increase her already impressive output to fill the big boots left behind.
“With Kat coming off the year that she had, when [other teams] look at Duke and they look at Duke attackers, her name is gonna be circled,” Church said. “We’ve seen a really good version of Kat all during preseason … and she wants to score goals.”
Positive signs are emerging that Rader is up to the task even in the early stages of preseason. Against No. 12 South Carolina in a tune-up friendly just last week, the Stuart, Fla., native notched two goals in a Duke victory, which included an early free kick and the game-winner from the top of the box. Look for the Blue Devils to play their attack through the feet of Rader all season long. -Luke Jovanovic
Most anticipated matchup: vs. North Carolina, Oct. 8
The Tobacco Road rivalry consistently presents Duke with its most physical challenge of the season and last year was certainly no exception. In both meetings, Duke was met with disappointment, falling 3-0 in the regular-season match Sept. 8 and enduring a heart-pounding penalty shootout in the postseason. The Blue Devils certainly have their sights set on redemption on Oct.8. With new names on the pitch for Duke, a youthful roster transformation could bring a sense of rejuvenation and along with the support of the Koskinen Stadium crowd, the Tar Heels will be in for a tough task. According to North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance, their squad is “the deepest team we've had in our history,” but the prospect of achieving such triumph only adds an extra layer of allure to this mouthwatering matchup. -Sammy Marks
With many core players returning from last year’s well-rounded roster, there is no reason why this season's Duke team can’t be a contender for the national title. The development of Rader is set to bolster the team’s attack, while the incoming recruiting class provides a lot of additional talent. While teams like UCLA and North Carolina also retained most of their key players, the Blue Devils demonstrated their ability to compete at the top level last year by securing victories against ranked teams like Virginia, South Carolina and TCU. If this squad stays healthy and the new players adapt quickly to college play, there should be very few that doubt this team's ceiling. -Marks
Although the Blue Devils are overflowing with talent, there can be no denying the gigantic role Cooper played in Duke’s offense last season. The attack ran through her feet, and she delivered night after night, racking up 19 goals and 11 assists. Simply put, if the Blue Devils cannot find a way to account for this lost production, they will struggle to score goals against the highest level of competition. They will still find ways to beat the lower-caliber teams in the ACC, but will discover games against talented North Carolina, Virginia and Notre Dame squads extremely challenging. An early NCAA tournament exit after a quarterfinal bounce from the ACC tournament could be a realistic end to what would be a disappointing season. -Jovanovic
Jovanovic: 12-3-1 (8-2 in the ACC), loss in ACC semifinals, loss in NCAA round of 16
Marks: 12-3-1 (7-2-1 in the ACC), loss in ACC semifinals, loss in NCAA quarterfinals
Sheehy: 12-2-1 (8-1-1 in the ACC), loss in ACC championship, loss in NCAA semifinals
Yoo: 12-2-2 (9-1 in the ACC), loss in ACC semifinals, loss in NCAA semifinals
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Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.