The Blue Devils' regular season was unimpressive: 8-5-6 record. But the ACC commands a lot of respect in women's soccer circles, and Duke's seventh-place finish was good enough to earn the Blue Devils an at-large bid from the NCAA women's soccer committee.
Now the Blue Devils are one win away from going to the Women's College Cup.
The Blue Devils shut out Indiana, 2-0, on Sunday to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1994. Robbie Church's women survived the tenacious Hoosiers and horrendous weather to accomplish something Duke has never done before in the history of the program: it's advanced farther in the NCAA Tournament than archrival North Carolina!
The Blue Devils' reward? A trip back to Indiana Friday night to face Notre Dame, which knocked off Carolina Saturday and is unbeaten in its last 16 games.
In Duke's favor is the momentum it's built up in the NCAA Tournament, where it began with a shootout victory over South Carolina, then moved on with victories over Georgia and Indiana -- both on the road.
"Nothing's been easy for us all year," said Church. "The girls have fought hard all year, and I think the key thing is when your team is going to hit the stride. There's no question about it, we're playing our best soccer of the year. We've had some ups and downs, but I think the girls have just come to practice every day and worked hard and they've come to games and worked hard and now things are starting to go our way."
Sophomore KayAnne Gummersall missed most of the season with an injured ankle but came off the bench to score the winning goal against Indiana -- her first goal of the season.
Freshman Maeghan FitzGerald had not taken a shot all season before she nailed the clinching penalty kick against South Carolina.
When sophomore Sara Murphy, who had started the first 20 games, missed her first game this season against Georgia with an ankle sprain, FitzGerald stepped into the backline and helped shut down the Bulldogs, one of the hottest teams in the South.
The Blue Devils have no dominating striker, but they do have one of the country's best young midfields and a maturing backline in front of goalie Allison Lipsher, the only senior on the team.
Junior Lorraine Quinn and sophomores Elisabeth Redmond and CJ Ludemann all grew up in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area and give the Blue Devils stability in midfield.
Redmond, Duke's top scorer with eight goals and 11 assists, scored the winner against Georgia and the insurance goal against Indiana. Quinn scored against South Carolina, and Ludemann set up both goals last Sunday in Bloomington.
On the backline, juniors Christie McDonald, who came back from surgery to remove a brain tumor between her freshman and sophomore years, and Kelly McCann, the team's lone Californian, have provided experience.
"I'm really proud of the way the defense is playing," said Lipsher after the Indiana game. "We have a very young defense and they've stepped up and matured a lot this season."
Duke will be the underdog against Notre Dame, but McDonald says to not overestimate the Irish.
"We're obviously going to have a lot of respect for them coming in," she said, "but we are playing our best soccer right now and we need to keep playing aggressively in order to win."