Though team was coming off a successful 1985 season (4-2 in the ACC and 16-5 overall), they faced the loss of four-year starters Tom Kain and goalkeeper Pat Johnston to graduation. With a strong returning midfield and defense, head coach John Rennie was looking to see who would step up to even the scoring load and fill gaps in the goal.
His best prospects were seniors John Kerr, a first-team All-America and Duke’s leading scorer, sweeper Kelly Weadock, a four-year starter and first-team All-ACC pick who had allowed only 15 goals in 21 games the previous season, and co-captain Mike Linenberger, the backbone of the team’s midfield.
Additionally, Rennie had successfully recruited one of the strongest incoming classes in the country, with four freshmen looking to make a difference in their first year. Joey Valenti, a freshman from Tampa, Florida, was a quick ball handler whose game-winning assist against Akron would later help Duke earn its first-ever national title.
The early season brought mixed results. Early losses to Catawba and ACC rivals N.C. State and Maryland revealed a team with a lot of potential, but which had yet to find its rhythm. Despite victories over major conference rivals UNC and Wake Forest, Duke ended the regular season 15-5-1, including falling 4-0 to Virginia. With few exceptions, however, the losses were close, and the wins were sound, with the Blue Devils registering eleven shutouts and five matches with a win margin of at least four goals.
Facing 13th-ranked South Carolina into the first round of the NCAA tournament, Duke knew their team chemistry had to be right. They hadn’t scored as many as three goals in a game since their 3-2 overtime victory against the Gamecocks six games before. After scoring just two goals in the previous four matches, Duke turned in an outstanding first half performance, scoring all three of its goals to again route South Carolina 3-2.
Fired up from the win and determined to avenge the 4-3 regular season loss to N.C. State, a now-cohesive Duke team took the field against the Wolfpack on November 23 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. This time, goals by freshmen Brian Benedict and Joey Valenti led the Blue Devils to a 2-0 upset over the 12th-ranked Wolfpack.
The quarterfinal match brought Duke back to its home turf. On Sunday, November 30, amidst chilly winds and steady rain, the Blue Devils faced Loyola of Baltimore in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. The Greyhounds had achieved two things Duke hadn’t: back-to-back shutouts in the first two rounds of the tournament, and a solid win in Charlottesville against rival Virginia.
Loyola was a team on the attack, registering 37 fouls to Duke’s 18. Junior forward Tom Stone scored his fifth game-winning goal in nine matches to give the 10th ranked Blue Devils a 2-1 victory, ending Loyola’s 30-game winning streak.
The next weekend, Duke faced Ivy League Champion Harvard on their home turf in Durham. After two well-placed headers by Kerr gave an early 2-0 lead, the Blue Devils seemed to lose their intensity, allowing the Crimson a goal at the 36:05 mark. It would be almost thirty more minutes until the Blue Devils got another chance to score, capitalizing on a two-on-one break by Kerr and Stone to end the game 3-1.
The national championship game was scheduled 10:30pm EST on December 13 in the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Washington. Before a crowd of 4,652, the tenth-ranked Blue Devils faced the 12th-ranked Akron Zips, marking the first time either team had played on Superturf. “At times it looked like a ping-pong match, the ball went so fast,” Rennie said afterward. “A lot of times the turf affected the play.”
For Duke’s eleven seniors, the chance to play in the championship game was the culmination of a long-awaited dream. “We came in just after Duke had played for the national championship in 1982 and lost to Indiana (2-1) in eight overtimes,” Kerr said in an interview with the Durham Sun. “We hoped to return to the finals in 1983, and came up just two games short. In 1984 we missed the playoffs and in 1985 South Carolina knocked us out in the first round.”
To succeed this time around, Rennie knew his seniors had to capitalize on their experience and versatility. “There is more depth on this team than on any team I’ve ever coached, particularly up front and in the midfield,” he said. On any other given year, any number of reserves would have been starting. The team depth meant that Duke could adjust its personnel to match the other team’s strengths.
To contain Akron’s English-style of play (scoring early and then focusing on defending its own net,) Rennie looked to control the strategy of the game. Taking advantage of his team’s depth, he used frequent substitutions to slow the pace of play on the fast turf. As a result, starting goalkeeper Mark Dodd had to make just three saves to register his ninth shutout of the season. The winning and only goal of the game came at 1:34 into the second half, when Stone connected with an assist by Valenti and senior Carl Williamson that bounced off the bottom of the crossbar and into the net. It was Stone’s eighth game-winning goal of the season, placing him at the top of the NCAA tourney in scoring with four goals and five assists.
Following the championship, Kerr, who led the ACC in scoring with 44 points over the season, was awarded the 1986 Hermann Trophy, given to the nation’s top player, as well as the National Player of the Year Award of the Missouri Athletic Club. He was the fourth Blue Devil in five years to be awarded the Hermann Trophy. Both named to second-team All-ACC, teammates Stone and Weadock were awarded most valuable offensive and defensive players of the national championship game, respectively. Robert Probst, a freshman, was named to the 1986 Men’s All-Freshman Team by Soccer America.
Undefeated (12-0-1) at home and now carrying Duke’s first national championship trophy in any sport, the team returned from Tacoma to the cheers of the campus community and the applause of then-Duke President Keith Brodie: “We’ve been saying it all along, but now we are No. 1 indeed.”