The sky was already dark when the eighth-ranked Blue Devils began their last mid-week game of the regular season, a Tuesday-night shenanigan against visiting Howard.
Clearly Duke can see in the dark. The Blue Devils shut out the Bison 7-0 beneath bright Koskinen Stadium lights in a collaborative showcase that saw goals from all over the roster. Both rosters, actually.
“It's pleasing as a coach because now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty end of the season where we're counting on players,” said head coach John Kerr after the victory. “It's good to give them an opportunity to see what they can do.”
There was a lot for the home team to chew on as it lined up for the starting call-out on the field. At No. 8 nationally, Duke (9-3-2, 3-3-1 in the ACC) looks for a host role in the ACC tournament as well as a decent seed; at the same time, with 12 combined seniors and graduate students, the Blue Devils have something sentimental to hold onto as they approach the end of their regular season.
So much to think about meant they had to stay focused. The visitors paid their hosts a favor in this regard, keeping Duke busy responding to the six fouls and two yellow cards dealt to the Bison (2-10-1) in the first part of the game. Howard put both senior midfielder Luke Thomas and Pariano on the ground, but both stood back up and stayed in the thick of it.
Thomas scored Duke’s first goal off a combined Forster Ajago and Ulfur Bjornsson assist. Thomas kicked the ball on a sharp angle into the right corner of the net, getting it behind Benjamin Hoeslii before the Howard goalie could even turn around to see where it was headed.
“I knew that he would cause them problems,” Kerr said of Thomas, “because he's really good on the dribble. He did really good.”
That trusty chain reaction effect. Thomas’ goal warmed up the net so that freshman forward Bjornsson could fill it again. The Icelandic striker sent a soaring kick over Hoeslii’s head from within the box, once again courtesy of an Ajago assist. A killer rookie standout, Bjornsson has not scored since September’s home win against Syracuse. Maybe the dark sky and cold weather made him feel at home Tuesday — Iceland, with weather in the 30-degree range this week, is getting about five hours of sunlight per day at the moment.
And on the stat sheet he stayed. Not five minutes of the second half ticked away before Bjornsson tucked the ball into the other net, making sure he got a goal in on both sides of the field. This one came from up close, another joint assist story. Sophomore defender Kamran Acito found himself on the wrong end of the pitch at just the right time, turning an Antino Lopez pass into a setup for Bjornsson’s second goal.
Later, he scored his third. Happy hat trick to Bjornsson.
“It’s about time,” he said.
When Ajago scored, there wasn’t much hoopla on the field. Now the Blue Devils were up by four, instead of three. As has been the trend throughout the season, it was only a matter of time before Ajago did his thing. The Ghana native has scored in eight of Duke’s 14 games this season, and in every game that the Blue Devils have notched a goal but three, at least one of them has been his.
With a little more than a third of the game left to play, Kerr sent in a small army from the bench. Lewis McGarvey, Cameron Kerr and Bull Jorgensen jogged onto the field. For newly recovered McGarvey, a senior captain, Howard was only the second opponent after Elon that he’s had the chance to defend against this year. When McGarvey got his head involved in a ping-pong match with the soccer ball, shouts from the sidelines and the Koskinen bleachers were loud and excited. When the Belfast, Northern Ireland, native gets on the field, it makes a difference to his team.
“It's fun to help the team. I love it,” McGarvey said. “There are lads just busting it every single day … it was nice for the boys to get out there and get some goals.”
Duke’s fifth goal came from junior forward Jai Bean. Its sixth came from a Howard own-goal.
It has been nine years since Duke notched seven goals in a soccer game. It last happened in a 2014 8-2 defeat of Stetson at Koskinen. The last time the Blue Devils won by seven or more goals was September 2004, when they beat Emory & Henry 10-0.
“We were on tonight,” Kerr said. “A lot of guys had a lot to prove. And we played well.”
Friday will be the seniors’ night. The Blue Devils will celebrate their last game of the regular season with an ACC matchup against Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. at Koskinen.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.