In spring 2010, the rising seniors of the Duke women’s soccer team were not pleased. The fall season had ended abruptly with back-to-back losses in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament and the first round of the NCAA championships. That might have been considered a decent season, but the team’s leaders, who had advanced to the Elite Eight the two previous years, expected more. During the team’s spring training, they gathered the team for a mental and emotional overhaul.
The meeting rattled then-freshmen Tara Campbell, Libby Jandl, Erin Koballa, Nicole Lipp, and Maddy Haller. During the course of the injury-riddled 2009 season, all five had become starters, creating a promising young foundation. But the upperclassmen were right: If the team was going to meet its potential, they needed to do more. “Whatever it takes,” they told themselves.
It’s late October 2012, and the women’s soccer season is winding to a close. At Tuesday’s practice, typically the hardest one of the week, the team wears black shirts that read, “Compete.” Now seniors, Campbell, Jandl, Koballa, Lipp, and Haller are the ones setting the tone. They still have unfinished business.
After reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2010, Duke advanced to the championship game last season, suffering a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Stanford. But while last year’s success came as a surprise, this year’s team entered the season ranked second nationally. “Last year no one really knew about us. Now, there’s a target on our back,” says junior forward Laura Weinberg.
Weinberg leads the team in scoring—at press time she ranked third in the NCAA in goals per game—but it’s fitting to the character of the team that there’s no single standard-bearer. There are forwards Kelly Cobb ’15 and Mollie Pathman ’14, who missed the team’s first few games while winning a gold medal at FIFA U-20 World Cup in Japan. There is senior keeper Tara Campbell, who with thirty career shutouts is closing in on Duke’s all-time record. There is Kim DeCesare ’14, a defender-turned-midfielder-turned-striker who honed her ball skills and reflexes in part by practicing kicks inside a racquetball court.
And then there’s Jandl, who may embody the team’s workmanlike spirit better than anyone. Although she wasn’t heavily recruited in high school, Jandl wanted to play for Duke, where her two older sisters had gone. She attended a Duke soccer camp after her sophomore year of high school, but still received little interest from Duke coach Robbie Church. But after calling Church repeatedly during the next two years, Jandl convinced him to take her as a walk-on. “We both thought I wouldn’t play for four years,” she says. “But I came here thinking I had nothing to lose.”
Jandl sought out extra practice time with associate head coach Billy Lesesne and absorbed Church’s honest critiques. After pushing herself further than anyone thought possible, she earned a spot in the starting lineup for an October 2009 game against perennial powerhouse Florida State. The Blue Devils held the Seminoles to a shutout draw, and Jandl has been a starter ever since.
“Our class has this blue-collar attitude, this ‘whatever it takes’ motto,” Jandl says. “When we were younger, we’d have to win a game or else miss the ACC and NCAA tournaments. We remember those times.”
That sense of hunger is crucial to the team’s identity. Before the season, they met with Greg Dale, a sports psychologist who works with several of the Blue Devil squads, to create a set of “core values,” a team ethic forged in the crucible of that painful 2010 spring.
“We’d sit there for hours [with Dale] arguing about words—whether ‘accountability’ or ‘trustworthiness’ was more important,” says Maddy Haller. Ultimately, they settled on commitment, competitiveness, and respect. The team manifesto hangs in every player’s locker, and it’s distributed before each biweekly meeting with Dale. Those meetings usually involve exercises— such as sharing a meaningful photograph from childhood or discussing something they struggle with—that are designed to build trust and deepen the players’ understanding of each other.
“They made a concentrated effort to improve the culture on the team,” Dale says. “To their credit, they didn’t just talk about it, they started living it.”
Dale also has taught the players how to guard against the pitfalls of striving too hard for success—that relentless quest for “effortless perfection” so common at Duke. “Perfectionism and self-criticism can make these players very hard on themselves. It can drive you to work harder, but it can also undermine your ability to be successful,” he says. “They need to learn how to coach themselves in a constructive, positive way. They’d never talk to a teammate the way they talk to themselves nor the other way around.”
And so, three years later, perhaps the greatest success of the Duke women’s soccer team isn’t necessarily going from a firstround loss to the championship match, but rather how much this team has become a family. Thinking back to her first year, Erin Koballa remembers how self-involved each player was on the field—and how much it wasn’t working. “I had to learn to put the team first, to put everything towards this teamfirst mentality,” she says. “It was important to realize this was bigger than myself.”
It’s a difference they’ve seen in themselves— and their opponents. At a recent game against Boston College, the Blue Devils were shocked to see how divided their opponents were, arguing with each other on the field. “Petty stuff, that kind of drama just doesn’t happen here,” says Koballa. “It sounds so simple but those three little words—it’s amazing how much they’ve created a backbone.”
As the magazine went to press, the team was preparing for its postseason run, one where any stop before the December 2 championship game could be considered a disappointment. But the players think they have the right formula for making that season stretch as long as possible. The seniors created core values that have become inextricable from this team, and they laid a foundation for the younger players to establish their own legacies. “After we leave, they’ll meet with Greg to rehash the team identity. They have to do it for themselves,” Haller says.
For now, the formula is working. “This program has made me grown-up and become a person,” says Koballa. “It’s so weird that a little ball on a field can make you learn that. I want other people to feel that same way when they leave here.”
It’s simple math, then, the calculus of this team. Three little words. One little ball. Four big years.