Kip Coons, TSN Correspondent
DURHAM, N.C. – After missing the 2014 NCAA tournament, the Duke Blue Devils women’s soccer team came up just short of winning the championship in 2015, falling 1-0 to Penn State in the title game.
The Blue Devils are deep, talented and hungry for their first NCAA crown, with 10 starters returning, including five seniors and their top seven goal scorers.
Veteran coach Robbie Church will have everything but the element of surprise for another strong postseason run.
The keys are versatile senior Christina Gibbons, who played for the U-23 national team over the summer, and leading scorer Taylor Racioppi, a sophomore midfielder who will shift from her central role of a year ago to a flank position.
Senior Imani Dorsey, junior Toni Payne (another U.S. U-23 teamer), and junior Ashton Miller return as proven scorers.
Payne, Gibbons, and Racioppi were named to the All-ACC preseason team, and Duke’s three picks on that 11-player unit were more than any other ACC side.
Sophomore F Kayla McCoy was the top goal scorer a year ago, and the defense should be especially solid.
It is deep, with six players – Gibbons, seniors Lizzy Raben and Rebecca Quinn, juniors Schuyler Debree and Morgan Reid, and sophomore Chelsea Burns – owning considerable starting experience.
With freshman Mia Gyau also pushing for playing time, Gibbons or Quinn could move off the back line to shore up the midfield.
At the very least, the depth will help to offset Quinn’s late arrival, as she is playing in the medal round for Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Blue Devils will undergo a change in formation as well, shifting from a French formation (4-2-3-1) of the past several years to a 5-2-3 similar to what Italy used extensively in this summer’s European championships.
Church is hoping that Duke can create more wide play with the change.
The biggest surprise in the preseason has been sophomore Kat McDonald.
The Wakefield High product saw limited time last year but has taken over the holding midfielder job vacated by senior Kara Wilson, the lone starter not returning.
By coincidence, Wilson’s younger sister Emily is one of the seven incoming freshmen who form the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the nation.
If there is a question mark for Duke, it’s goalkeeper depth.
Junior EJ Proctor returns as the starter, but 6-foot-1 freshman Brooke Heinsohn, the granddaughter of NBA Hall of Famer Tom Heinsohn, is at the U-20 World Cup camp and will redshirt.
Redshirt sophomore Abby Pyne will take a medical redshirt, leaving only freshman walk-on Mackenzie Coles to spell Proctor.
Church on the Blue Devils:
“We have a veteran group returning, and we’re deeper than we’ve ever been since I’ve been here.”
Quick Notes – Duke Blue Devils
Coach: Robbie Church (268-160-53 in 22 years, 181-111-42 in 15 years at Duke)
2015 record: 14-6-5, 4-3-3 ACC
Finish: 8th ACC, advanced to NCAA tournament final
Starters returning: 10
Preseason ranking: No. 3
Key losses: M Kara Wilson 1g-1a-3 pts, M Cassie Pecht 3-1-7, M Danielle Duhl 1-2-4
Key returnees: So. M Taylor Racioppi 7-6-20, So. F Kayla McCoy 8-2-18, Jr. M Ashton Miller 5-5-15, Jr. M-F Imani Dorsey 5-3-13, Sr. M-F Toni Payne 4-5-13, Sr. D-M Christina Gibbons 3-5-11, Sr. D-M Rebecca Quinn 3-0-6, Jr. D Morgan Reid 0-2-2, Sr. D Lizzy Raben 0-0-0, Jr. D Schuyler DeBree, Jr. GK EJ Proctor 14-6-5 (W-L-T), 0.64 goals-against avg.
Top newcomers: F-D Mia Gyau, M-F Ella Stevens, D-M Emma Carlson, M Olivia Erlbeck
Won’t play: Miami, Notre Dame, UNC (in ACC)