Duke has disproved the value of momentum for the postseason. Entering the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship two weeks ago, the Blue Devils clearly didn’t have much, if any.
In their final three ACC matches, they tied Wake Forest, lost to North Carolina and then lost to Wake in the ACC tournament. Mixed in was a 4-0 win over nonconference lightweight Francis Marion in the regular-season finale.
Ranked 19th nationally, Duke got a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament that seemed a bit generous at the time. However, the Blue Devils have rolled through three rounds, beating Loyola (Md.) 6-0, Miami of Ohio 4-1 and ACC champion Virginia 3-1. The last two victories came last weekend in UVa’s Klockner Stadium, where the No. 2 seed Cavaliers had beaten Duke 1-0 during the regular season.
So how does Duke coach Robbie Church explain the turnaround?
“What we have done successfully is score early goals when we have dominated play,” Church said. “I think all year we have played very good soccer. The only game we were completely outplayed was the Carolina game.
“But in a lot of the games we didn’t score early goals when we dominated play. That’s what has happened in the NCAA tournament. We’ve come out of the gate early and scored not just one goal, but two goals.”
Church said his players were upset at being knocked out of the ACC tournament in the quarterfinals.
“But the realization hit us in the sense that we had one shot left, the NCAA tournament,” Church said. “We had 13 days between the loss in the quarterfinals and our first NCAA tournament game, and we had great practices. We spent a lot of time working in the final third, and we were very hungry for the tournament to start.”
Nobody has been hungrier for goals than redshirt junior forward Kim DeCesare. She scored two in each game last weekend and was named the TopDrawerSoccer National Player of the Week.
Dunn in: Here’s the takeaway after North Carolina hosted the second and third rounds of the NCAA women’s tournament. The Tar Heels, who beat Illinois 9-2 and advanced past Baylor on penalty kicks after tying 1-1, are a much more dangerous team with Crystal Dunn playing up front rather than on defense.
Dunn did not score a goal in the regular season. After joining the Tar Heels a month into the season because of her duty with the U.S. Under-20 team in the World Cup, all she did was win Defensive Player of the Year honors in the ACC, for the second year in a row.
In the NCAA tournament, Dunn has scored a goal in each of the Heels’ three games and given opposing defenders fits with her speed on the ball. Here’s what the coaches had to say:
Janet Rayfield of Illinois: “We didn’t have an answer for Crystal Dunn running at us with ball.”
Marci Jobson of Baylor: “She’s a national team player. You better hope she gets some chances to score.”
Anson Dorrance of UNC: “She’s incredibly quick, fast and agile. … This young lady has the best agility of any athlete I’ve ever trained. I’m not just talking about here at the University of North Carolina. I would include the full (U.S.) national team that I coached for eight years.”
Shootout specialist: Alex Walters has stepped on the field twice for the UNC men’s team this season, both times to take a penalty kick in a shootout. Both times he came through, against Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals and nine days later against UMBC in the second round of the NCAA tournament. And both times the Tar Heels prevailed.
Walters sat out last season with an injury, but two years ago, when he appeared in 10 games, the redshirt junior midfielder from Bradenton, Fla., converted the winning penalty kick in a shootout against Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA tournament. So he’s used to coming off the bench cold for his big moment.
“You know going into it that you’ll probably have the opportunity to take one, and I’m just glad that my teammates and coaches believe in me and they give me the opportunity to come out here and contribute,” Walters said. “Even though I’m not going in the game, I love contributing any way possible.”
Looking ahead: The Duke and UNC women’s teams go on the road for games in Friday’s NCAA quarterfinals. Both will take on No. 1 seeds. Third-seeded Duke will play at Penn State (19-3-2) at 7 p.m. The Nittany Lions survived a penalty kick shootout against Michigan on Sunday. UNC will play at 8 p.m. at Brigham Young (20-1-2), which edged Marquette on penalty kicks Saturday. The winners will advance to the College Cup, soccer’s final four, at San Diego on Nov. 30-Dec. 2.