By Taylor Knight, Duke Sports Information
DURHAM, N.C.-- August 28 was a day full of emotional highs and lows for the Duke women's soccer team.
Head Coach Robbie Church and the team woke up rearing for a shot to topple the then-No.1 team in the country, Notre Dame. As if that wasn't enough to get the blood flowing, the match was slated for North Carolina's Fetzer Field - a venue that triggers a collective emotional response in Duke women's soccer players, past and present - as part of the Carolina Nike Classic.
The Blue Devils opened strong, but Notre Dame jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the 26th minute when a clearance from Duke goalkeeper Tara Campbell ricocheted off the face of Notre Dame's Brynn Gerstle and into the back of the net for heartbreaking tally.
In the 54th minute, things got worse for Duke - much worse. Redshirt junior Ashley Rape, the anchor of a talented Blue Devil defense despite missing the better part of her freshman year and all of her sophomore season due to two separate tears of her left ACL, went down hard and was unable to return to the game. Tests in the following days would confirm what many already suspected - a season-ending tear of her right ACL.
The Blue Devils, however, wouldn't stay down long. Duke got a much-needed emotional lift when sophomore Laura Weinberg evened the score at one apiece with a goal from 16 yards out. Then, just five-and-a-half minutes later, freshman Kelly Cobb made a purposeful run from midfield, beating the Notre Dame keeper from just inside the 18-yard box and giving the Blue Devils - who would receive an insurance goal off the foot of senior Chelsea Canepa - the lead for good.
But for all the ups and downs, there was at least one constant, one known quantity, one calming force.
Once Rape went down and it became clear that she wasn't getting back up, sophomore Natasha Anasi, who until that point had been filling a holding central midfield position for Duke, knew that her role had just changed.
"I heard Robbie [Church] call my name from across the field, and I just pointed to the back, and he was like 'Yeah, I need you to step back there'," said Anasi.
The position isn't an unfamiliar one for Anasi, who saw time in center back as a freshman and as a part of her Dallas Texans '92 Red team which won the U.S. Youth Soccer U-19 national championship this past summer.
In fact, prior, even prior to the season, Anasi sat down with Church to discuss her potentially contributing some minutes in the back to spell Rape and her counterpart, junior Libby Jandl.
"I knew I was going to be playing in the midfield for most of the time," said Anasi, the Arlington, Texas native. "But I was like 'If I play in the back, is there anyplace else I'm going to play?' And we talked about center back being the main priority."
For Church and Duke, Anasi simply was a better fit in midfield - that is, given the Blue Devil backline is at full strength. Jandl and outside defenders Erin Koballa and Maddy Haller, all juniors, have been starting together nearly since their arrival on campus freshman year. And Rape, when healthy, is the cornerstone of the defense.
In such instances, there always must be some concern that adding a new piece into the system will disrupt the chemistry and balance that existed. But those precious minutes spent playing with Jandl in the back her freshman year allowed Anasi to fill the void almost seamlessly.
"I wasn't too nervous [about throwing off any sort of chemistry] because there were a few occasions in which I did step in and play with Libby last season," she said. "So I felt that we had enough chemistry that once we played together it was going to click and it was going to work."
Anasi's transition to center back fulltime at the collegiate level has been aided by Duke assistant coach Carla Overbeck. It's possible that many of those spectators that pack Koskinen Stadium might not notice Overbeck on the sidelines (she usually sticks to the bench, leaving the pacing to Church, unless it's to get in the ear of the referee briefly), but her name is recognizable to even the casual soccer fan. A two-time Women's World Cup champion as well as gold- and silver-medal winner at the Olympics, Overbeck, herself a center back, works closely with the Duke defenders.
"Carla has been awesome. The main advice that has been playing through my head is to step up our line," she said of Overbeck's counseling. "She's been making sure that we are condensing the space on the field."
Something Overbeck has said must be clicking.
Since the Notre Dame match, a total of eight matches, the new-look Blue Devil defense has surrendered just four goals, contributing in no small way to the team's historic 11-1 start.
Most recently, the backline helped goalkeeper Tara Campbell to her seventh clean sheet of the still-young season as the women picked up a 2-0 victory over conference foe Clemson.
The team returns home for a top-20 matchup against Virginia on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 8:00 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium, seeking their 12th win of the year and a perfect 4-0 mark in the ACC.