The first game of the season brings a swirl of emotions. With a mixture of excitement and nerves, some teams let the jitters get the best of them. Not Duke.
The Blue Devils earned the program’s 450th victory in their first matchup of the season against reigning Big 12 champs West Virginia in a 2-0 contest, looking poised in their return to Koskinen Stadium. Sophomore Kat Rader and senior Katie Groff put two tallies on the board for the home team, marking head coach Robbie Church’s sixth-straight victory in the opening contest of the year.
“I thought there was a lot of really good stuff,” Church said. “There were a lot of things that we’ve been working on [during training] that we really showed here.”
Duke (1-0) got its brace in the 70th minute to seal the victory after winning a crucial corner despite a quiet start to the second half. Sophomore Devin Lynch sent in a beautiful ball, but it seemed as though Mountaineer goalie Kayza Massey might take the Blue Devils’ chance for glory. The 2022 Big 12 Co-Goalkeeper of the Year did not demonstrate her usual sharpness, bobbling the ball to the waiting feet of Groff. The defender did not blink, knocking it into the net to go up 2-0.
While Duke ultimately got the win, the game almost looked very different just four minutes in. After some nifty play in the midfield, West Virginia junior Dilary Heredia-Beltran launched a rocket at the Blue Devil net. The only thing standing between the Mountaineers (0-1) going up early was the right post, a savior of epic proportions.
Duke took the wakeup call to heart, crafting a response of its own seven minutes later. Sophomore Carina Lageyre, who returns to the squad after struggling with injury, sent a ball out wide to Rader on the left wing. The forward took the ball in stride, driving to the middle of the field before sending a bullet to the right upper corner from far outside the box.
“I just wanted to attack the left side. That’s something we’ve worked on a lot in training, the transition moments for me to get the ball at my feet and run at the outside back,” Rader said. “I felt like I was 1v1 with [my defender] and I cut inside and hit it with my right foot.”
While the early minutes of the first half were characterized by nail-biting excitement, both teams seemed to ease into play as time wore on. West Virginia, however, did get one more dangerous opportunity. A wide open Julianne Vallerand headed the ball down toward the Blue Devil net, but senior keeper Leah Freeman responded in kind with a save.
“I thought Leah … did a really good job with decision making and being able to play over the build,” Church said.
Duke, meanwhile, had plenty of chances in front of goal. Rader remained active, accruing two more shots before the 45 minutes ran out. The most dangerous attempt, however, came with the clock winding down. Freeman sent a long ball over the top of the Mountaineer defense, where senior Maggie Graham was at the ready. The midfielder ran onto the ball with West Virginia on their heels, but Massey came up with a big save at the top of the 18-yard box to stave off Graham.
Determined to disrupt the Blue Devils momentum, the Mountaineers came out in the second half with gusto. Their high pressure earned them several good-looking opportunities, but the compact Duke defense stopped most offensive buildups. There was an early look by Heredia-Beltran from outside the box, but Freeman was once more up to the task, quickly snuffing out the threat.
“Beginning of the second half I thought they had a bit more control of the game,” Church said. “They were trying to push a lot of players high and take away our build.”
Determined to have the last laugh, the Mountaineers made a final attempt to best the Duke defense, once more at the hands of Heredia-Beltran. The goal frame became a hero again as the junior ricocheted a rocket off the crossbar, saving the Blue Devils from what would have put a damper on their opening day.
West Virginia, however, would not go down without a fight. With less than one minute on the clock, the Mountaineers strung together a dangerous attack. The ball bounced around in the box before an attempted clearance by Duke that didn’t go the distance. Sophomore Taylor White was waiting and ready as the ball skated across the open face of the goal, but couldn’t quite stretch her foot out to meet it. With mere seconds to go, the Blue Devils preserved the shutout.
“There are a lot of things out there that we are gonna work on,” Church said. “We’ve got to be a little more clinical in the final third.”
Duke gets a week of rest before taking on two opponents at home in No. 22 Southern California Thursday and Wisconsin Sunday.
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Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.