Duke Women’s Soccer Preview

It’s time to get the ball rolling at Koskinen Stadium for the Duke women’s soccer team, who open the season tonight with a 7pm home match against Army.

Duke is ready to go

This year’s team is looking to build on their Sweet 16 loss to Oklahoma State, and they have an excellent chance to improve their situation as they return all 11 starters from last year’s team. This year’s squad will be led by captains Molly Lester (red shirt senior), Ashley Rape (senior) and Tara Campbell (junior).

Ranked sixth out of 12 ACC teams in the preseason polls, and #12 in Soccer America’s preseason poll, the Blue Devils will face an early season test when they face top-ranked Notre Dame on August 28 as part of the UNC Nike Classic. The Irish are the defending national champions, and Duke will have its hands full in Chapel Hill.

Notre Dame won’t be the only tough competition the Devils have to face this year- their schedule contains eight teams that are ranked in the Preseason top 25 NSCAA Coaches’ Poll. The majority of those teams are ACC foes like third-ranked UNC. Along with the Carolina game, the Devils will make trips to Chestnut Hill and Winston-Salem to face #4 Boston College and #18 Wake Forest. The Devils will play host to many ranked opponents as well, including #5 Florida State, #6 Maryland, #10 Virginia, and #11 Texas A&M.

The schedule won’t be easy for the Devils, who are trying to build on last year’s 11-8-4 record, but it will provide them plenty of challenges and chances to improve. Returning all of their starters may be the the team’s biggest advantage, and they won’t lack for depth. They have an excellent incoming class, which includes two top 100 players and four players ranked regionally by TopDrawerSoccer.com. One of the most promising newcomers is freshman forward Kelly Cobb, and Alaska native who was a 2009 and 2010 NSCAA Youth All-America selection, a 2010 Parade All-American, U-20 National Team selection and No. 67 in the latest TopDrawerSoccer.com player rankings. Cobb will be joined by other standout freshmen like midfielder/forward Katy Colas, goalkeeper Ali Kershner, forward/midfielder Katie Trees, forward Audrey Gibson and defender Tabria Williford.

This freshman class is loaded with talent, and Cobb is certainly the leader. Soccer America named her one of the top 10 influential freshmen in the country, and hopefully she can become a big contributor to the Devils. She was also named the 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alaska, but that won’t be an ironclad guarantee of college success. Look at former Duke point guard Greg Paulus. He was the National Gatorade Player of the Year, albeit in football, and his athletic prowess was somewhat less than advertised. Cobb will look to impress the coaches, opposing teams, and fans, and hopefully gain some valuable playing time that she can use to make herself a better player and bigger asset to the Devils in the future.

On the total opposite end of the experience spectrum is Lester, who was medically redshirted both her freshman and junior seasons, and returns to this year’s squad as a graduate student. As a captain she will have many responsibilities both on and off the field, but her unique situation will allow her to better connect with the younger players around her, especially if they get injured. Many times redshirt/fifth year seniors have trouble fitting in. Do they belong with the fourth-year seniors, or are they off on their own? The men’s lacrosse team faced a similar problem between 2007 and 2010, when the NCAA granted certain players another year of eligibility due to the 2006 scandal.

Lester and Head Coach Robbie Church don’t see this as a problem, as Lester is meshing and communicating well with all of her teammates. With all of the adversity and struggles that Lester has faced during her time as Duke, she will be an excellent leader for this squad and someone the younger players can look up to and learn from.

Lester will be a key for the Devils this season

Lester will be a key for the Devils this season.

The big goal for this team, as it is every year, is to beat UNC. As we know, UNC women’s soccer is pretty good. They have won 20 of 22 ACC championships, and 20 of the 28 NCAA national championships ever contested. Okay- that’s probably better than pretty good. In any case, Duke’s stiffest competition is eight miles down the road, and they hear about that team every day. It can’t sit well that UNC gets all the local publicity, with more coverage on news stations and their faces plastered all over the papers.

Duke has the daunting task of trying to defeat the mostly* undefeatable. It’s hard to erase decades of dominance, but it would be the sweetest of accomplishments. The formula for Duke to build a successful program hinges on having success against their rivals. It would open up a wellspring of recruiting and propel them from the middle tier to the top tier of the women’s soccer hierarchy. Still, this task is easier said than done. But if Duke can find success in Chapel Hill on October 13, it could mean all the difference. They’ve failed to conquer the Carolina powerhouse in their last five meetings, and this will undoubtedly be the biggest regular season game of the season.

*Duke’s all-time record against Carolina is 2-33-1.

Duke will look to end their losing streak against UNC

Duke will look to end their 5 game losing streak against UNC.

For a team that has made the Sweet 16 three out of the last four years, Duke is still searching for that elusive National Championship (they reached final one year, losing 9-1 to UNC). This year, they have their best shot yet. Yes, their schedule is loaded with tough competition and top 25 teams, but that may actually end up helping their cause. Getting over the hump and making it to the championship game is a daunting task, especially after heart-breaking defeats in the Sweet 16. Those types of losses aren’t new to Blue Devils teams. Just look at the men’s lacrosse team, who, since 2007, played for one national championship and made two other Final Four appearances. They came up short each time before finally winning the National Championship in 2010. It is not impossible for this Duke women’s soccer team to follow a similar trajectory.

In many regards, this teams leadership and veteran talent will be their strong point. If they hope to crack the Sweet-16 ceiling, they’ll need to show resilience amid one of the country’s toughest schedules. It will be an exciting season for the Blue Devils, and it seems something less than ridiculous, somehow, to hope it might end in Kennesaw State University on December 4.

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