CARY, N.C. — Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian knew what was coming.
Ahead of Friday’s national semifinal against Duke, Krikorian touched on the Blue Devils’ counter attacking approach, and the problems and challenges it posed.
And yet, Duke executed its game plan to near perfection on Friday night, knocking off Florida State by sitting deep, defending as a unit and taking their chances going forward. It’s an approach that found success not only because of the team’s prowess at the back, but also a talented forward unit led by Toni Payne, Casey Martinez, Imani Dorsey and Taylor Racioppi.
“We have dynamic attacking players and it is very tough if you sit back and cannot counter,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “With the pace of our players and the ability to beat players one-on-one it really scares them. Especially with really big teams that open up, there will be seams for us and space for us to attack at. We have really continued to work hard on that.”
Sitting deep, inviting pressure on a defense is far from an easy game plan to execute. Any moment, lapse or mistake at the back can lead to a crucial and decisive goal, forcing the team to push higher up the field, negating the team’s defensive prowess.
That goal never came for Florida State, and part of the reason Duke was able to pull off the upset was its previous two tournament encounters against Florida and Stanford.
“We had to go out a face teams that were favored over us, faced teams that were top five in the country,” Church said. “So to be able to win on the road, that gave us the confidence to play a great team like Florida State tonight."
The origin of Duke’s counter attacking approach started at the end of last season. An 8-9-1 record in 2014 saw the Blue Devils miss out on the NCAA Tournament completely. On the back of that disappointment, the coaching staff re-evaluated the way they did things, and executed changes across the board. From playing style, training sessions and physical preparation, nothing was left unchanged. The start of the preseason in 2015 featured a number of new ideas and a completely different approach.
“I think last year we conceded more goals than what we wanted to,” goalkeeper EJ Proctor said. “A lot of that came from focusing on attacking. I think trusting what our coaches were telling us: If everyone defends the goals will come, you'll be able to build counter attacks from that. Focus on defending and trust that the attack comes as well.”
Changes didn’t just come from the coaching staff. The upperclassmen leaders instigated a new culture from within the roster.
“We came together last season after missing out on the NCAA tournament; we were disappointed knowing that something needed to change,” defender Christina Gibbons said. “Something within ourselves and our team that wasn't working. We figured out it was our culture and as a team we came together and decided what we want our values and goals to be. After deciding that, it really let us grow as a team, become closer, and trust one another. Even off the field, we became a lot closer and I think that's really contributed to our success.
Adopting its new approach this season did have its share of ups and downs. None more so than a 4-2 loss at home against Virginia Tech that marked an 0-2-2 start to Duke’s ACC regular season schedule.
Instead of letting their heads drop, Duke continued to tighten things up defensively, despite losing starting center back Schuyler DeBree to a midseason, season-ending injury. A reshuffled back line continued to produce results, while Payne, Dorsey and the Duke attack made life miserable for opposing defenses. That led them to tournament wins over James Madison, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida, and a penalty kick triumph over Stanford.
Now, all that stands between the Blue Devils and a national championship is a talented and dangerous Penn State side.
“We expect a great game,” Church said of Sunday’s final. “We’ve got to push this [win against Florida State] aside and we’ve got to start looking forward to playing that game. It’s a short turnaround, a noon game on Sunday.”