The last time I saw the Duke Blue Devils play, they were methodically taken apart by the North Carolina Tar Heels. Other than trying to get the ball to Michelle Cooper, Duke seemed particularly toothless and head coach Robbie Church took notice. If there is a coach in the ACC who will move players around and change formations mid-season, it is Church.
Following the loss, Church moved Sophie Jones, who has been a fixture at left midfielder pretty much since she walked onto Koskinen, and moved her to the right. That coincided with a three game streak that saw Duke collect three wins – including a 6 – 0 pasting of a pretty good NC State squad – all by shutout.
This game against the Blue Devils was always going to be a dog-fight for the Virginia Cavaliers. In the last 20 games of the series, the Wahoos and Devils have tied (after two overtime periods) four times with ten more games finishing at 1 – 0. These are among the most tightly contested games in the ACC.
Virginia head coach Steve Swanson began the game with a change of his own, one that I have been wanting for some time now. He dropped Claire Constant back to the defensive line and slid Alexis Theoret back into the center of the midfield.
Duke is very good, and reading Robbie Church’s comments (as well as the stylings of the game announcer), the Blue Devils may feel that they had more scoring chances as a result— though I counted three really good opportunities for each team. But I still think this Virginia squad defends better in midfield with Theoret in the middle.
UNC neutralized Cooper by running two and three defenders at her. Virginia was able to nullify Cooper without making any tweaks. Swanson just lined up Constant and Talia Staude and they marked her out of the game.
Duke did control the first 20 minutes of the game and had a pair of decent chances, but skied shots were the result on both. The Duke high press was effective and, by the end of the first half, Virginia keeper Kayla White was no longer attempting to play the ball out of the back on goal kicks. She was just knocking it long. It’s not how Virginia wants to play because, to be frank, Virginia almost always cedes possession when kicking it long.
With 19 minutes left in the half, the tenor of Virginia’s season may very well have changed. Virginia lost Rebecca Jarrett for the game, and perhaps for the remainder of the season. Jarrett was challenging Duke’s Olivia Migli for the ball. Migli, who had the ball, stretched out to try and poke the ball forward, and lost her balance. Jarrett tripped over Migli and was down for several minutes before limping off supported by Swanson and head trainer Bill Parente. Jarrett was on crutches and walking around after the game, but Robbie Church had such a long talk with her afterwards that I fear even he knows the seriousness of the injury. We’ll have to wait and see.
But as anyone who follows this team knows, these women do not give up. And they can take a haymaker and come right back.
It was less than a minute and a half after Jarrett’s exit when Virginia’s press broke the Blue Devils. At midfield, Alexa Spaanstra caught Duke’s Katie Groff in possession, the ball was deflected to Lia Godfrey. Godfrey exploded on the ball and Groff tried her hardest to grab Godfrey (Duke took two yellow cards for “professional” fouls on counters, and a third for grabbing a jersey, so this was a theme for the day) but couldn’t do that. Godfrey put it ahead to Haley Hopkins, all three Duke defenders converged on her, and Hopkins slipped the ball to a wide-open Godfrey for the tap in.
The rest of the game was a tug of war on the pitch. Duke had prepared themselves in the out-of-conference slate (playing UCLA, TCU and UNC) for ACC matchups like these. Midway through the second half, Michelle Cooper and Kat Rader combined to put Maggie Graham behind Constant inside the box. Graham had time on the ball but Kayla White came out and made a beautiful kick save to preserve the shutout.
White was the hero of the game and, as you’ll see from the highlights below, half of them are hers. She had made huge saves in three of the last five games, the kind of saves that elevates defenses and saps offenses. She has waited a long time to claim her starting role, but has grasped it with both hands (pun intended) and is making the most of her chances. And Virginia is better for it.
Next Up: A quick turnaround as the Cavaliers host the Florida State Seminoles this Thursday. Game time is at 8pm and the game will be on ACC Network.