Every soccer player knows that soul-crushing feeling. The moment the clock winds down and the buzzer echoes across the pitch. The sheer weight of defeat resting on everyone’s shoulders. Hopes of a trophy are dashed while a season comes to a close.
Maggie Graham and Emily Royson are all too familiar with this tidal wave of emotions. In their three years with Duke soccer, the team has concluded each campaign in much the same way — a loss in the NCAA quarterfinals, so close to a College Cup berth. The finale to the 2022 season, however, was extra bittersweet for the two rising seniors. With the referee’s whistle resounding across the stadium after a double-overtime defeat to then-No. 3 Alabama, they rushed into the waiting arms of not just their teammates, but their respective older sisters, Delaney and Jenna. They were in mourning, not for the end of a season, but for the end of an era — a fleeting moment in time where they had the rare privilege of playing alongside someone with a shared last name, shared history and shared experience.
“Once it hit tournament time … my dad constantly reminded us [that it was] our last game together or could be our last game together,” Maggie told The Chronicle. “It would kind of stick with me like, oh, yeah, this might be our last game. [It just] made it mean a lot more.”
Now, as Maggie and Emily bask in the twilight of their Blue Devil careers, they are not just adjusting to life as senior leaders or veterans amongst a sea of youngsters. They are defining their Duke experiences for themselves, creating independent lasting legacies that will forever linger over Koskinen Stadium. Their thoughts, however, are never far from their sisters and the journey that brought them here.
The story of these two dynamite sister duos begins not with triumph and eternal glory, but with a backyard. While both Maggie and Emily rarely got the chance to share the field with their older siblings before college, they always had a partner with whom they could hone their passing and practice their ball control abilities, even from a young age.
“We used to play in our backyard … when I was four and [Jenna] was six,” Emily said. “So she was probably the person that I got to practice with the most because who else did I have to play with and work with?”
That’s not to say the two sister pairings did not get their share of playing time together before the pressures of the collegiate stage. Maggie and Delaney combined their talents for one year at The Westminster Schools before moving on to other developmental programs. Meanwhile, the Roysons saw the pitch together, but from opposite ends of the field — Emily holding down the fort on defense with Jenna spearheading the attack.
“It was completely new [when we ultimately crossed paths in college],” Emily said. “It was her up top [and] me in the back, but we never ever thought to play on the same team in something serious.”
The two younger sisters, however, were not eager to play collegiately alongside their older counterparts. From the Royson perspective, Emily was not excited to follow in Jenna’s footsteps and go off to Georgetown. Wanting to forge her own path and create her own identity, Emily opted for a completely different school and conference. It wouldn’t be until two years later that their paths would cross again.
Maggie, on the other hand, eventually decided on a college career with her sister. Despite initially nixing Durham as a potential home due to Delaney’s presence, the younger Graham fell in love with life in Blue Devil blue.
“I [wanted] to have my own experience in college soccer,” said Graham. “But then we started getting a lot closer … and I also visited Duke and just knew … there’s no point in not coming here.”
Sisters in blue
And so it began for the Graham sisters. Playing once more with the same crest over their hearts, they embarked on what would be a three-year journey at Duke. Like any sibling knows, however, the experience came with some growing pains. Some bickering characterized their early collegiate relationship, Maggie said, but after adjusting to life together, the Graham connection began to bear fruit.
Not only did they have the advantage of knowing one another as people, but they reaped the benefits of knowing each other as players. On top of that, the Grahams had a habit of working their sibling magic when it was needed most.
Nowhere was this more evident than the Blue Devils’ second-round NCAA tournament game against Memphis in 2021, when Maggie was a sophomore while Delaney was a senior. In just the 43rd minute, the younger member of the duo received the ball in the midfield and sent a pass forward that sliced open the Tigers’ defense. With their next-level connection, Delaney read the pass and quickly ran onto it in the box before beating the keeper with a drilled and composed shot. That goal was the difference in that game against Memphis, sending the Blue Devils to the Sweet Sixteen with a 1-0 victory.
“That was probably my best soccer memory just because that was cool,” Maggie said. “A little Graham connection and then … we won that game.”
While Maggie and Delaney had plenty of moments like this to refine their shared craft, the Roysons did not. Jenna finished out her undergraduate years as a Hoya before making the decision to finally join the Duke squad alongside Emily for her fifth and final year of eligibility in 2022. Despite the tight adjustment period, the two best friends quickly fell into step, with one major change — Jenna would be joining her sister at the back, creating a center back duo with a literal blood bond.
“It was different having my sister playing next to me,” Emily said. “I felt like I could tell her what to do. I would yell at her and she would yell something back and then she’d be like, ‘Whatever. It’s just my sister yelling at me.’”
The pairing turned out to be a stroke of genius by head coach Robbie Church. Helping the Blue Devils collect 11 shutouts and starting all 23 matches together, the combined aggression and skill of the Roysons made them a stalwart presence on the back line. Any opponent fears a locked-in center back duo, but a pair of sisters is hard to beat.
Together, the Grahams and Roysons headlined a Duke team brimming with talent, ultimately seeing them to the infamous NCAA quarterfinals. Both Emily and Maggie, however, were quick to mention their bond with their older sisters off the field as a cornerstone of their Blue Devil experiences.
“There’s a lot of memories, just knowing that she was always there,” Maggie said. “The night we would go to dinner during the school week, where it felt like we were kind of disconnected from Duke but we were still together, I think was really great.”
Big sisters move out
Despite the magic of playing with a sibling, all good things must come to an end. Delaney and Jenna’s younger sisters now find themselves on their own once more, ready to define this next phase of their soccer careers for themselves. While they are looking forward to being their own people again, both Maggie and Emily have internalized the lessons they’ve learned while playing alongside their siblings.
“One of the things I’ve learned from Delaney was … work ethic is kind of above all things,” Maggie said. “[She] was just one of the people on our team that worked harder than everybody else.”
“I think I learned more about [Jenna] than I did about the experience,” Emily said. “I haven’t been playing with my sister my whole life, so I think it [was] just seeing her in her last year, just learning to cherish the little things, and every game counts.”
As Maggie and Emily stand on the precipice of what is likely their final season in a Duke uniform, their older sisters are not far from their thoughts. If anything, the strong bond that deepened while they played together will last a lifetime. Yet from here on out, the Royson and Graham family names lie in capable hands as the younger sisters embark on their new campaign for a national title.
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Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.