Any day could be her last, but Christina Gibbons won’t approach them any differently than she has these past four years.
When she arrived at Duke, a somewhat overlooked soccer player from Raleigh, Gibbons struggled to find her voice. While in high school at Cardinal Gibbons, she played on a CASL club team with players who were constantly advancing to national teams.
She stayed behind, often filling their roles on the field.
Duke women’s soccer coach Robbie Church saw a light in Gibbons, one tough to detect if you aren’t looking hard enough.
“She’s not a flashy player,” he said of his two-time team captain. “She’s one you have to watch and have to see over a period of time. The more you saw her, the more you realized this is the girl that keeps everybody together. We wanted to recruit her because of all the intangibles she had as a soccer player.”
Four years later, as third-seeded Duke makes a run in this year’s NCAA tournament and hosts rounds 2 and 3 Friday and Sunday, Gibbons must say goodbye. Not right away, she hopes, but soon.
It could be Friday, when the No. 14 Blue Devils play Illinois State (14-5-3) in the second round. Maybe Sunday, when the winner of that game advances, or perhaps even further down the line. Whenever it happens and however it ends, Duke will lose a leader who at last found her voice. The Blue Devils are 13-4-3 going into Friday’s match after winning their 13th straight NCAA home game with a 3-0 victory over Charlotte.
“It’s kind of surreal thinking about the fact that it’s my last time going out there,” said Gibbons, the 5-foot-6 senior All-American who won a 3A soccer title as a senior at Cardinal Gibbons. “Obviously that brings a lot of emotion, just the whole tournament, that each game could be my last one. I don’t want to necessarily go about it any differently. I don’t want to change how I’m playing, but obviously there’s a lot at stake.”
Being flexible on the field
Gibbons probably shouldn’t change anything about how she’s been playing this year. The senior defender/midfielder was named the ACC defensive player of the year on Nov. 3. She was the third in Duke women’s soccer history to win that award, leading a defense that allowed 14 goals and posted nine shutouts in the regular season’s 19 games. Duke finished tied for third in the ACC.
Years of being passed up for national teams as a younger player likely worked more in her favor. She played multiple positions in those days and now excels on both sides of the ball, having lead the U.S. U-23 to the U-23 Women’s Nordic Tournament championship in England since.
It was really frustrating at a younger age to be on a club team with so many talented people that were getting called up to the national teams and seeing them leave.
Gibbons moved to midfield in September, scoring or assisting in the five games she played after that. On Oct. 15, she shot the game-winner against Virginia, ranked No. 5 at the time, to extend Duke’s winning streak to eight.
“She doesn’t back down to anything,” Church said. “She’s such a great two-way player. She can attack and defend. She does them both equally well, and that’s invaluable as a defender. We build a lot of things where she is, especially if she’s an outside back because of her attacking skills.”
Duke coaches watched several club games she played in, and Church was glad to know Gibbons, a visual media studies major, actually had an interest in attending Duke.
In her freshman and sophomore years with the Blue Devils, she didn’t know how to express herself on the field without stepping on her teammates’ toes.
“I felt like internally, I had a lot to say and really wanted to be a bigger influence,” Gibbons said. “I wanted my voice to be heard and take charge at times, because I think that’s something that naturally comes out of me, but I struggled in knowing the right things to say and when to say them.”
Only two others have played more minutes than Gibbons in Duke history, as she enters Friday with 1,744.
“We’re a very talented team,” Church said of a group that lost, 1-0, to Penn State in the College Cup title game last season. “A lot of our team has played on very high national teams. Sometime when teammates are talking to teammates, you have a sense of looking at them like ‘What are you telling me?’ When she speaks, people listen. They know her whole intention is for the betterment of the team.”
She’s one of the strongest leaders we’ve ever had here.
Gibbons has logged hours of time in the weight room and with speed and agility training in order to back up her goal – just to be a great soccer player.
Church added Gibbons has surpassed many of the players who made national teams over her. Gibbons is still standing, now with years of national experience of her own, and hoping to further her soccer career as a professional.
“It was really frustrating at a younger age to be on a club team with so many talented people that were getting called up to the national teams and seeing them leave,” Gibbons said. “I think staying patient and continuing to work hard is what made me stand out, consistently staying on an upward trend. You have so many people who will, at a young age, just get to a high level and just plateau.”
Gibbons has started in all but one match of her college soccer career.
Gibbons’ process over the last few years is one she described as a roller coaster but learned to trust.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs,” she said. “It’s been really huge for me on an individual basis, becoming accustomed to playing different positions. I’m hoping that versatility will help me in the long run and this experience is something I can carry forward in case I need it at hopefully what would be the next level.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
NCAA women’s soccer tournament
Illinois State vs. Duke
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Watch online: ACC Network Extra
N.C. State vs. Pepperdine
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Kansas at UNC
When: 6 p.m. Friday