Duke has been a big-game team all season, according to coach Robbie Church.
And the Blue Devils are certainly according the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship big-game status.
Two Duke luminaries addressed the team in the past two days – men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and men’s lacrosse coach John Danowski, who own eight NCAA titles between them.
Christina Gibbons, a junior from Raleigh who is the defensive leader on Duke’s back line, said said Danowski’s message Wednesday “was about who you play for, playing for the seniors and sticking together one more week.”
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She said Krzyzewski addressed the team Thursday morning in the conference room at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“It was awesome,” Gibbons said of her first audience with the hall of famer. “He’s such a great speaker. We all walked out of there with chills. We were ready to play right then.”
If the Blue Devils are to claim their first NCAA women’s soccer title, they will have to get past a familiar opponent. Duke (13-5-5) will square off with ACC champion Florida State (18-2-4) in the second semifinal at 7:30 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park, following the 5 p.m. match between Big Ten powers Penn State (20-3-2) and Rutgers (19-3-3).
A sellout crowd is expected, and Church noted that 550 tickets were sold to Duke students, with another 150 going to staff
The winners will meet at noon Sunday to decide the NCAA title, which Florida State – now making its fifth consecutive College Cup appearance – won last year.
Way back on Sept. 20, Duke and Florida State tied 0-0 in their ACC opener.
Since then, it would seem the teams have gone in different directions. FSU went on to claim its third consecutive ACC championship. Duke settled into eighth place in the league, didn’t even make the four-team ACC tournament that the Seminoles won here at WakeMed a month ago, but became one of eight ACC teams chosen for the NCAA tournament.
“I think the people on the outside looking in are asking, ‘How the heck did Duke get here?’” Church said. “We actually started off playing very well. We just didn’t get the results we wanted, but it wasn’t a lack of playing well. We hit a spell when we were not scoring goals, but we were always defending. That has carried us.”
FSU coach Mark Krikorian isn’t underestimating Duke.
“There’s an awful lot of quality top to bottom in our conference,” he said. “When we saw Duke early in the season, we saw the quality they had. Any team that can go into Gainesville and win and go out to Stanford and win, that’s a great team.”
Duke, a No. 3 seed, beat No. 2 Florida 2-1 and eliminated Stanford, a No. 1 seed, on penalty kicks in its previous two NCAA matches, and Church said the Blue Devils are playing with confidence.
“The confidence in the team is (because of) where we’ve played and the results we got,” Church said. “The road is never easy in the ACC. You’re always going to be challenged. We have a win at Carolina, a draw at Penn State, a close game (1-0) at Virginia, a win at Florida. We’re a very confident team after going on the road and playing two of the top teams in the country.”
In its meeting with Duke, Florida State was missing five foreign players who were away on international duty with their various national teams, and a sixth, Isabella Schmid, played only 17 minutes because of injury.
“We haven’t even looked at that tape,” Church joked.
Krikorian said he learned a couple of things from that game.
“One thing I know is I’m a whole lot better coach when I have all my players available,” he said. But on a serious note, he said he opted for more conservative tactics that day because of Duke’s ability.
“We learned that they’re pretty good,” Krikorian said. “They had the lion’s share of the ball. Their athletic quality was very clear. Their defending was very good. It was a different tactic than we would normally use, but it was out of respect for Duke and the talent they had.”
The two Big Ten coaches, O’Neill of Rutgers and Erica Walsh of Penn State, talked up their league’s postseason performance as well.
“I’ve been in the Big Ten for nine years,” Walsh said. “Every year the Big Ten seems to grow and improve. The difference from top to bottom gets smaller and smaller. We’ve seen this coming.”
Rutgers and Penn State split home-and-home decisions this season, with Rutgers winning 1-0 in the regular season and Penn State taking the Big Ten tournament championship game 2-0.
Penn State features a high-scoring offense that has produced 17 goals in four NCAA tournament games and 61 this season, although the Nittany Lions have not yielded a goal in the tournament.
Neither has Rutgers,which relies on a veteran defense anchored by 6-foot sophomore goalkeeper Casey Murphy, who leads the nation in shutouts (19) and goals-against average (0.31) and is third in save percentage (.906).
NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship
At WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary
#2 Rutgers (19-3-3) vs. #1 Penn State (20-3-2), 5 p.m.
How they got here: Rutgers def. Fairleigh Dickinson 1-0, def. Hofstra 2-0, def. UConn 4-0, advanced past #1 Virginia 0-0 (7-6 SO); Penn State def. Albany 5-0, def. Boston U. 6-0, def. Ohio State 4-0, def. #2 West Virginia 2-0.
Players to watch: RU— So. F Colby Ciarrocca (9 goals, 4 assists, 22 points), Gr. M-F Cassie Inacio 5-2-12, Sr. M Samantha Valliant 3-4-10, So. GK Casey Murphy (0.31 goals-against average, 19 shutouts). PSU—So. F Megan Schafer 13-4-30, So. F Frannie Crouse 10-7-27, Sr. F Mallory Weber 8-10-26, Sr. F Raquel Rodriguez 5-6-16, R-Sr. GK Britt Eckerstrom (0.49 GAA, 10 SOs).
Notes: Rutgers is making its first appearance in the College Cup, while Penn State is here for the fifth time but still seeking its first title.
#3 Duke (13-5-5) vs. #1 Florida State (18-2-4), 7:30 p.m.
How they got here: Duke def. James Madison 5-0, def. Florida Gulf Coast 2-0, def. #2 Florida 2-1, advanced past #1 Stanford 1-1 (3-2 SO); FSU def. Evansville 3-0, def. South Alabama 5-0, def. Auburn 2-0, def. Texas A&M 5-0.
Players to watch: Duke— Fr. M-F Taylor Racioppi (7-6-20), Fr. F Kayla McCoy (7-2-16), So. M Ashton Miller (5-5-15), So. GK EJ Proctor (0.65 GAA, goals-against avg., 10 shutouts). FSU—Fr. M Megan Connolly 9-10-28, Sr. F Cheyna Williams 10-7-27, Fr. F-M Elin Jensen 7-5-19, R-Jr. F-M Berglind Thorvaldsdottir 8-2-18, So. GK Cassie Miller 0.55 GAA, 8 SOs.
Notes: This is the seventh time WakeMed Soccer Park has hosted the College Cup, but only the third time a Triangle team was here. North Carolina won titles in 2003 and 2006. ... Duke is making its third appearance in the College Cup and both previous times lost in the championship game (1992, 2011). … Florida State owns an 11-9-5 record at WakeMed Soccer Park, having won ACC tournament championships here in 2011, 2013 and 2015.