Just three weeks ago, a season that had started with such promise looked ready to derail for the Duke women’s soccer team.
At the halfway point of the conference schedule, the Blue Devils were limping along with a 4-6-3 record. Their 1-4-2 mark in ACC play had them languishing in 11th place in the league. In two straight games they couldn’t hold 2-0 leads against conference opponents.
And they had just embarked on a four-game road stretch that began with a disappointing 4-1 loss at Boston College.
So what happened? The Blue Devils completed that road swing with victories at Maryland and then-ninth-ranked Notre Dame and a tie at Clemson, and suddenly they’re back in the postseason picture.
“It’s been a very interesting year for us,” Duke coach Robbie Church said. “At different times we have reinvented ourselves. We had a lot of injuries in that middle stretch. Now we’ve started to get some people back.”
Two of the key players returning to health were redshirt junior goalkeeper Meghan Thomas, who has played all of the last three games for the Blue Devils, and sophomore defender Kara Wilson. Church also tinkered with the lineup and playing style.
“We’re typically a very aggressive team on all three lines,” Church said. “We’ve tried to keep people in front of us instead of stepping hard. People haven’t got behind us as much. The quantity of shots we’re giving up have been from distance, not in the seams.”
The position changes were made to shore up the midfield. Wilson and freshman Malinda Allen moved from defender to holding midfielder roles, and senior Kim DeCesare went from forward to an attacking midfielder. Because of an injury to Tabria Williford, senior Mollie Pathman returned to defender after a stint in the midfield.
“We got some more ball-winners in the midfield,” Church said, “and we changed the formation, went to a 4-2-3-1 from a 4-4-2 for some games. We kind of attack with four and defend with six. From an offensive standpoint we have kept our wide back players home more than we did earlier.”
Offensively, freshman midfielder Toni Payne and senior forward Laura Weinberg have two goals apiece in the past four games. It was Weinberg who stole the ball from Notre Dame goalkeeper Kaela Little in the second overtime and scored the golden goal in a 2-1 victory. Senior forward Kelly Cobb seems to have found her scoring touch after missing much of last year’s season between U-20 World Cup duty and injury.
“We’ve been playing some good soccer,” Church said. “Hopefully we’ve got ourselves back in the ACC tournament picture and NCAA tournament picture, but our work is not done.”
National team duty: North Carolina senior Crystal Dunn earned her eighth cap Sunday when the U.S. Women’s National Team beat Australia 4-0 in a friendly at San Antonio, Texas. Dunn started for the second straight time at right outside back and formed an all-ACC back line that included two former Tar Heels in Meghan Klingenberg and Whitney Engen and former Virginia Cavalier Becky Sauerbrunn.
Dunn locked up in a classic duel all game long with speedy Australia forward Lisa De Vanna. Despite straying off her mark on occasion, Dunn used her own speed to track back and defuse several scoring chances. She also was involved in the second U.S. goal, as her pass led to Carli Lloyd’s strike in the 14th minute.
Dunn was one of two collegians on the U.S. team. The other was Virginia junior Morgan Brian, who entered the match as a substitute in the 65th minute.
Divided loyalties: Forgive the Shaffer family if it seemed a bit conflicted for Sunday’s Virginia-UNC showdown at Chapel Hill. With Morgan Brian away on national team duty, freshman midfielder Alexis Shaffer made her first career start for the Cavaliers in their 2-0 victory. Approximately 20 family members and friends of the former Green Hope High standout turned out in support.
That, despite her family’s strong ties to the Tar Heels. Grandfather Lee Shaffer was an All-American basketball player at UNC and the ACC Player of the Year in 1960.
Two uncles, Lee and Dean, played football and basketball, respectively, at UNC. (Dean would transfer to Florida State. Alexis’ father David played basketball at Clemson and Florida State.)
Alexis said her grandfather never wavered, however. “He was going to put on a Virginia shirt for this one,” she said. “He said he definitely would root for Virginia, for his granddaughter.”
Looking ahead: ACC women’s teams have only a week and a half remaining in the regular season before the top eight finishers advance to the conference tournament beginning Nov. 3. Duke (6-6-4, 3-4-3) hosts N.C. State (6-11-0, 0-10-0 ACC) at 7 p.m. Thursday and Pittsburgh (4-11-1, 0-10-0) at 1 p.m. Sunday, while No. 5 UNC (13-3-0, 7-3-0) hosts Clemson (7-5-4, 4-4-2) and visits No. 22 Wake Forest (9-4-2, 4-4-2). N.C. State is idle Sunday.
In men’s action, Duke (6-4-5, 1-3-4), unbeaten in its last five matches, hosts No. 15 Wake Forest (8-3-4, 5-0-3) and N.C. State (5-4-4, 1-4-3) entertains Virginia Tech (4-4-5, 1-2-5), both at 7 p.m. Friday. No. 20 UNC (5-3-5, 2-1-5) travels to Pittsburgh (0-8-4, 0-6-2) for a 7 p.m. Saturday contest.