Through its surprising run through the NCAA women’s soccer tournament, Duke has eliminated conference champions from the Colonial, Atlantic Sun, SEC, Pac-12, and ACC.
If the Blue Devils can add the Big Ten to their trophy case, they will own their first NCAA title in the sport.
Duke (14-5-5) and Penn State (21-3-2) will meet for the championship at noon Sunday in sold-out WakeMed Soccer Park, where a pro-Duke crowd of more than 11,000 is expected. It’s a rematch of an early-season encounter, when the Blue Devils and Nittany Lions played to a 0-0 tie on Aug. 28.
Duke coach Robbie Church said in that game, in front of more than 4,000 fans at Penn State, he saw the foundation of the season take shape.
“Parts of that game, especially from being so early in the season, it was a really, really high-level game,” Church said. “We played really well for about a 25-minute stretch in the second half but didn’t have anything to show for it. But in talking to our coaches, I said this is something we can build on.”
Penn State is riding a 10-game winning streak and has been at its best in the NCAA tournament, outscoring opponents 19-0, including a 2-0 win over Big Ten rival Rutgers on Friday night. The Nittany Lions haven’t allowed a goal since the late stages of a 3-1 victory over Illinois in their Big Ten tournament opener eight games ago.
Duke has been nearly as stingy. The Blue Devils have allowed only four goals in their last 11 games and are coming off a 2-0 shutout of Florida State, the reigning NCAA champion and top seed in this tournament as well.
Junior forward Toni Payne, who had a goal and an assist against Florida State, said Duke’s defend-first mentality has worked.
“When the other team has the ball, our job is to defend because we’re the first line of defense,” she said. “It has helped us in the long run.”
Church credited the work of assistant coach Erwin van Bennekom, who was new to his staff this season, with helping to overhaul the defense.
“After not making the NCAA tournament last year, we knew there had to be changes,” Church said. “For many years we were a team that pressed higher up the field. That wasn’t working for us.”
The wearying schedule of Thursday-Sunday games in the ACC necessitated the change, Church said.
“If we high-pressed, we had nothing left,” he said. “It would be completely different on Sunday.”
The Blue Devils made the change work offensively by looking for more opportunities to counterattack.
“Erwin showed Toni and all the other attacking players, here’s how you can attack out of this defensive formation,” Church said. “For your skill set, we can create more chances, and it’s worked very, very well.”
The number bear him out. The Blue Devils have scored 46 goals this season and allowed only 15 in 24 games. Last year they scored 22 and gave up 23 in 18 games.
“From what we’ve seen so far, they’re one of the finest counterattacking teams I’ve witnessed in some time,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. “They believe in their tactics and what they do. It’s something they’ve grown into.”
Walsh said it’s incumbent upon the Nittany Lions to score early and dictate the pace of the game.
“Against any team that puts numbers behind the ball, there needs to be a certain sense of urgency early in the game,” she said.
“We witnessed it (Friday) night with Florida State. With teams that put a lot of numbers behind the ball, you’ve got to make it happen.”
NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship
At WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary
#1 Penn State (21-3-2) vs. #3 Duke (14-5-5), noon
How they got here: Penn State def. Albany 5-0, def. Boston U. 6-0, def. Ohio State 4-0, def. #2 West Virginia 2-0, def. #2 Rutgers 2-0. Duke def. James Madison 5-0, def. Florida Gulf Coast 2-0, def. #2 Florida 2-1, advanced past #1 Stanford 1-1 (7-6 SO), def. #1 Florida State 2-0.
Players to watch: PSU—So. F Megan Schafer (13 goals, 4 assists, 30 points), So. F Frannie Crouse 11-7-29, Sr. F Mallory Weber 8-10-26, Sr. F Raquel Rodriguez 5-6-16, R-Sr. GK Britt Eckerstrom (0.47 goals-against average, 11 shutouts). Duke— Fr. M-F Taylor Racioppi (7-6-20), Fr. F Kayla McCoy (8-2-18), So. M Ashton Miller (5-5-15), So. F-M Imani Dorsey 5-3-13, Jr. F Toni Payne 4-5-13, So. GK EJ Proctor (0.63 GAA, 11 SOs).
Notes: Neither team has ever won the NCAA title. … Duke is making its third appearance in the championship game, having lost to North Carolina 9-1 in 1992 and to Stanford 1-0 in 2011. … Penn State lost in the 2012 final to UNC 4-1 when this year’s seniors were freshmen. … Sr. M Raquel Rodriguez of Penn State scored a goal for Costa Rica in the Women’s World Cup last summer. She was named first-team All-America by the NSCAA on Friday. … Friday’s announced attendance of 11,676 set a WakeMed Soccer Park record and was the second-largest College Cup crowd in history, trailing only the 14,410 that turned out in San Jose, Calif., for the 1999 College Cup in 30,000-seat Spartan Stadium.