That was all she wrote.
Sunday afternoon, the 15th-seeded Blue Devils began — and ended — their NCAA tournament run. Duke hosted Western Michigan at home in Koskinen Stadium for the second round of the big dance after taking a week off from competition thanks to a first-round bye. The 2-1 Bronco win, clinched in overtime, ended the Blue Devils’ year and squashed any hopes for a deep national run.
Head coach John Kerr called it a “sad ending to a really great season.”
Charlie Sharp earned his 19th goal of the year in the first period of overtime by knocking down Duke’s defensive side and sending the ball over Eyestone’s head. The Broncos were in charge again, keeping the ball near their goal and forcing two corner opportunities. They finished the first 10-minute overtime period with a daunting 2-1 lead over Duke.
Things could have turned around with under four minutes to go, but junior midfielder Ruben Mesalles missed a near-perfect set up from sophomore defender Kamran Acito, kicking the ball wide right and leaving the Broncos with a lead and only two minutes of defense to execute. And execute, they did.
Western Michigan traveled to Durham after taking down Green Bay 3-0 Thursday. It earned its spot in the NCAA tournament on the heels of a 16-1-3 season that culminated in a Missouri Valley Conference championship victory. It lined up five graduate starters against Duke, along with a senior, a redshirt junior and a redshirt senior — old and practiced talent. Entering Sunday, the senior Sharp led the NCAA in goals with 18 on the season — four more than Duke’s Forster Ajago. In other words: This matchup was never going to be easy.
Right off the bat, it wasn’t. It looked more like a tennis match than a soccer game as the ball ricocheted back and forth across Koskinen field, both teams fighting energetically over possession. The goalies got involved quickly, each making an early save when their respective opponents pounded shots from deep. Eyestone’s height served him handily, allowing him to stop a killer over-the-head shot from Bronco Noah James in the first half that would have shifted the momentum away from the Blue Devils. The Texan freshman didn’t stay in the net, either; he got involved all the way up to the edge of the box, defending his territory fiercely. At the end of the first half, he had allowed zero goals and saved four.
This energetic, back-and-forth soccer went on for 34 minutes until Duke took charge of the game. Senior defender Amir Daley took an assist from classmate and co-captain Nick Pariano and sent it behind the goalie into the Bronco net at an almost 180-degree angle from the far right side. Pariano leads the Blue Devils in assists, now with eight.
“I thought we had the ingredients to make a run,” Kerr said. “It really hurts especially for those seniors and grad students that played so well all season. We're gonna miss them.”
The problem with taking the advantage over a feisty team like Western Michigan is that it proverbially pokes the bear. The 10 minutes following Daley’s goal before the end of the half were treacherous for the Blue Devils, who struggled to take any real possession in the last minutes of the period. If it weren’t for Eyestone’s and sophomore Kamran Acito’s defensive heroics, the Broncos might have equalized with one of the several opportunities they found before the halftime whistle blew.
There had to be one major thing on Kerr’s radar when he stepped into the locker room at the break: precision. Daley’s goal was pretty and effective, but if Duke wanted to see more action along the same lines, it needed to stop kicking the ball deep down the field without real aim or target. Soccer is a skill, not a game of jackpot. Once the second period took off, it looked like Kerr might have gotten through.
“I wanted to make sure that we didn't shoot ourselves in the foot by giving the ball away in bad areas,” he said.
In the sixth minute of the second half, Ajago took a rather uncharacteristically controlled run with the ball from midfield that turned into a tricky shot on goal. Bronco Ethan Brandt saved it, but the play was proof nonetheless that the Blue Devils were getting their heads in the game. Sure, Duke had the advantage, and sure, entering Sunday, the Blue Devils were 8-1-1 in games where they’ve scored in the first half (9-1-0 in games where they’ve scored first). But that didn’t mean they were taking any sort of backseat against the Broncos.
Alas, even with renewed vigor on the Duke side, Western Michigan converted a corner kick into an up-close goal that equalized the match with half of the period left to play. It was too strong and too close a kick for Eyestone to stop it.
With fifteen minutes to go in regulation, the game got mean. In the same minute, an official carded each team’s top scorer — Sharp and Ajago each took a yellow when their marked men tumbled to the ground. Just moments later, Ajago and his mark got into it again and both sides of the stands in Koskinen erupted, demanding another yellow from the referee. He settled for a lecture, but ultimately pulled out a third yellow card right afterwards when Western Michigan’s Will Perkins knocked down Duke’s Luke Thomas. This was no longer just a game: It was a fight.
“When you get into the NCAA tournament, the stakes get a lot higher, emotions get a lot higher, tensions get a lot higher,” Sharp said in the postgame press conference. “And I think that's just part of the game.”
That it was a fight became all too clear when the game stopped for Ajago, who was taken down seemingly by a studs-up cleat kick that wasn’t reviewed by the officials. The Ghana native quickly re-entered the match, but not without a newly-charged anger.
“I think that the Western Michigan Broncos did an unbelievable job of making that more of a Midwest soccer game than an ACC game…” said Bronco head coach Chad Wiseman. “In the Midwest, this time of the year, it's probably a little bit more physical.”
“We were hoping that it would be called differently,” Kerr said. “But certainly [Wiseman’s] right, and he got what he wanted.”
Overtime loomed with under two minutes to go in the second half. Western Michigan earned a corner. Bated breath for the Blue Devil faithful turned to cheers when Eyestone caught the kick squarely in his white keeper’s gloves. Cheers turned to sighs when, with just seconds on the clock, sophomore Drew Kerr’s corner kick missed the top of the goal by centimeters. The regular period ended, overtime commenced and Duke’s season fizzled to a close.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.