Duke finds its place in UNC's shadow
DURHAM, N.C. -- If you don't know what you're looking for, the soccer practice field is easy to miss as you drive along the far edge of Duke's campus. Only a short, unpaved driveway interrupts the thick tree cover along the main road and announces its presence. On a late summer day, with the leaves still lush and the hum of birds and insects still loud, the main road and campus beyond fade away as you turn in, only the right angles of the field left for orientation.
It's an appropriate setting for a program long tucked away in the shadow of the greatest dynasty in women's college soccer. But easy as it has been to skip right past Duke in a sport dominated by the University of North Carolina, times are changing. The other program in the area may be on the verge of becoming the other championship program.
"It's a good rivalry, and I think it's a healthy rivalry," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said of his program and Duke. "There's no bitterness. The two teams don't come out whacking each other. I think we have respect for the players and coaches in both programs, and I think it's the way a rivalry should be. I think there are some rivalries out there that are hatred, and that's not our attitude toward [coach] Robbie Church and the Duke program."
Soccer embraces rivalries between neighbors; the proximity of Manchester United to Manchester City or Read Madrid to Atletico Madrid make passions run that much hotter in European soccer. In many such cohabitations -- as with Manchester United and Real Madrid for much of their histories -- one side owns significantly more hardware than its neighbor. Yet few competitive chasms are bigger than the one between these neighbors separated by about 10 miles.
North Carolina owns 20 NCAA championships in women's soccer, all won under Dorrance. Like all but six other programs in the sport, Duke is still looking for its first national championship.
But if nobody is going to match that history, competing in the present is a more manageable goal, even with North Carolina yet again ranked No. 1.
"I have as much respect as anybody in the country for what they've done at North Carolina," Duke coach Church said. "It's just phenomenal. If you absolutely look at the numbers of what they've done, it's mind-boggling. We want to do what they do. And they set the bar high, no question about it. But we can do the same thing; we can play at that level. We're trying to close that gap. You need something to shoot at."
Growing up in Greensboro, N.C., as a soccer addict in a basketball state, Church crossed paths with Dorrance countless times. He played against Dorrance in pickup games, coached against him on the men's side as a coach at Lynn University and East Carolina when Dorrance ran the men's and women's programs in Chapel Hill and watched as Dorrance built the women's program into a brand name.
"You had to have respect," Church said. "Right away they made a commitment to the program, became fully funded early in their program, really sold the women's game. And they've been huge ambassadors for the women's game throughout the years."
Church also grew up attending football and basketball games in Durham, a die-hard Blue Devils fan at a time when the Tar Heels dominated the scene and basketball stars such as David Thompson had NC State soaring in popularity. In those pre-Mike Krzyzewski days, Duke was an afterthought in everything. So having already moved to the women's game full time, Church wasn't naive about the challenge when Duke offered him the coaching job after Bill Hempen, who founded the Blue Devils program in 1988, left for Colorado.
He also wasn't about to pass up the opportunity.
"It's always been a dream of mine to be at Duke," Church said. "It's my dream job."
Duke made it to the College Cup once under Hempen, no small feat, but 10 of the program's 18 NCAA tournament wins have come since Church arrived in 2001. The Blue Devils made it to back-to-back regional finals in 2007 and 2008 and have qualified for the tournament in all but one season under his watch. But as a 39-38-13 record in the ACC over that span suggests, it's a program that has been consistently good more than consistently great.
Changing that means occasionally beating North Carolina. Not just on the field, which Duke has done twice in 36 meetings, but in recruiting. Teams can make NCAA tournament runs, even get to the College Cup, on the strength of coaching, cohesion and good fortune. Teams don't win championships without goal scorers, the kind of players who can thrive in the nation's toughest conference. In the last two recruiting classes, Duke landed three of those most precious of commodities: sophomores Mollie Pathman and Laura Weinberg and freshman Kelly Cobb.
And people are noticing.
"I really like Robbie Church. He's a very honorable man, and I have a lot of respect for him as a man and as a coach," Dorrance said. "He's building a very fine Duke program. He's beat us out on two recruits back-to-back: Mollie Pathman two years ago and Kelly Cobb this year. So he's doing a good job building this program."
Cobb scored less than nine minutes into her first college start against Houston. Two days later, she scored the eventual winner against defending champion Notre Dame -- about three minutes after Weinberg tied the score. Church's teams have always played attractive soccer and defended well, but a recent 1-0 loss at Auburn notwithstanding, this Blue Devils team has the firepower to compete with any team on any day.
"We have possessed the ball, and we have played a nice style of soccer that I think could match up with anybody in the country," Church said, "But we haven't been able to score goals against ACC teams, so I think we have started to believe in ourselves in that area."
Growing up in Durham with a mom who worked at Duke and a dad who worked at North Carolina, Pathman admitted she was in the minority among her friends as a Blue Devils soccer fan. A decorated recruit who has logged time with youth national teams at just about every level of the development ladder, she strongly considered ditching that allegiance and signing on with the Tar Heels. In the end, she felt Duke was the right fit academically, a side of things that is both the biggest obstacle and the biggest selling point Church has to work with on the recruiting trail.
She also didn't feel as though making that choice meant sacrificing championship aspirations.
"Robbie sees the potential that our team has," Pathman said. "We do want to contend for a national championship, and that is one of my goals coming here. I really think we can do it. We have the right players, we have the right attitude."
It's not a rivalry of equals just yet -- North Carolina has no equal historically. But if you know where to look, there's another pretty good program coming together in the neighborhood.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.