DURHAM, N.C.-- The evening routine developed quickly and lasted all summer. At least three days a week after work, rising Duke senior Callie Simpkins would catch a cab from her internship at Goldman Sachs and head over to Chelsea Waterside Park on Manhattan’s west side. By 7:30 or 8:00, her Blue Devil soccer teammates Libby Jandl and Laura Weinberg would arrive from their respective New York apprenticeships and the three would exercise together for 60 to 75 minutes, before heading off into the New York sunset for dinner or frozen yogurt.
Overseeing their workouts was Chris Matsui, a trainer from Fusion Performance Training whom Simpkins had heard about from her trainer back home in Charlotte, N.C. Matsui would usher the Blue Devil trio through a variety of fitness and conditioning tests, from 800-meter runs to change-of-direction and acceleration drills, as they prepared for the 2012 college soccer season. Although Matsui is not a soccer-specific trainer, Simpkins says he would marvel at Weinberg when he saw what she could do with a soccer ball at her feet.
“He was in awe of Laura’s ball work,” Simpkins recalled. “It was like, ‘Callie, you’re pretty good, but Laura — she’s REALLY good with the ball.’”
Having already played with Weinberg for two years at Duke and several years before that on regional ODP squads, Simpkins was keenly familiar with her teammate’s soccer prowess. But she, too, was wowed by something she saw from Weinberg during their summer in New York: her burgeoning maturity.
“I felt this whole summer that something special was coming for Laura. I really did,” Simpkins said. “We talked about soccer all the time, and Libby and I tried to impress upon Laura that this would be her year, that we needed her to step into a leadership position. She was going to be our veteran up top, and we needed her.
“Her attitude and love for our team is unbelievable, and I saw it the most this summer, and I just knew it was coming…I joke with her sometimes that ‘Laura, I watched you become a woman this summer,’ but I really did.”
What Weinberg evolved into after her seminal summer was one of the top offensive players in the collegiate women’s soccer ranks. Already a solid scorer with 18 goals in her first two years — and a pair of berths on the All-ACC second team — Weinberg took her show a step further this fall. Heading into NCAA Tournament play this week, she has buried 15 shots into the back of the net to rank second in the talent-drenched ACC in goals. That’s the third best single-season total in Duke history (behind Kelly Walbert’s 18 and Casey McCluskey’s 16) and it pushed her into the No. 5 position on Duke’s career scoring list with 33 goals.
More impressively, it vaulted her into national prominence as one of the top 10 scorers in the country and selection to the All-ACC first team for the first time. And anyone who is first-team All-ACC has to be in the conversation for All-America, because the league is the best in the nation.
Like co-captain Simpkins, Duke coach Robbie Church also had high expectations for Weinberg’s junior season. He began talking to her last spring about the role she could fill on a veteran team that returned virtually everyone from its stunning run to the 2011 NCAA championship game. The most prominent complication the 2012 unit faced was the fact that two of the top returning scorers, Kelly Cobb and Mollie Pathman, would miss the entire nonconference schedule while playing for the U.S. in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup. Church’s spring planting suggested that Weinberg and reserve midfielder Kim DeCesare were positioned to fill the void.
“The one thing I really liked was that Laura relished the idea of putting the team on her shoulders,” Church said. “She wasn’t scared of the thought that everyone was going to mark her because Kelly and Mollie weren’t out there. She was relishing that. ‘Here’s a good opportunity for me to do something for myself and my team.’”
Weinberg and DeCesare started strong and kept up a consistent pace throughout most of the season, combining for 27 goals and 13 assists. Frequently they assisted each other, spectacularly at times, such as in the Wake Forest contest when Weinberg crossed a ball through the box, around a pack of defenders, as DeCesare soared in from the opposite side for a game-tying goal that forced overtime. The two entered postseason as the highest scoring duo in the country, a development that didn’t totally surprise Weinberg; during the summer she supplemented her conditioning work at Chelsea Park by playing with DeCesare, Simpkins and Jandl on a New York Athletic Club team in the WPSL.
“We played together over the summer, so that was nice to have that connection, and we’ve just been really clicking this year,” said Weinberg. “We’ve been working off each other really well. It’s just the experience of us playing together and it’s helped our team. After traveling almost every weekend in the summer to play games, it really helped us play together.”
Weinberg and DeCesare wear identical colored headbands every game to contain their long dark hair, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish between the two when they are in attack mode around the goal. Ironically, Weinberg’s hair was a point of contention early in her soccer growth phase. A self-acknowledged tomboy who played a variety of sports growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., she was so dominant in a 6-year-old girls league that opponents occasionally complained that she was a boy due to her short hair.
The taunts were bothersome but didn’t slow her down. She started playing for a travel team at age 7, made an U-9 team a year early and was so devoted to her development that by age 11 she could juggle a ball 500 times without letting it hit the ground, a feat that prompted a giddy call to her dad at work.
Weinberg also got some expert coaching at the individual, youth and club levels that spurred her progress and helped her realize that college soccer was likely in her future.
“Tony Stevens coached me and also Gilda (Doria, a Duke teammate from south Florida), and his very distinct style of coaching really helped me to develop,” she noted. “He was really hard on me and I hated going to practice, because I was really young when I started playing with him. I would cry because I didn’t want to go, but my dad made me and he ended up being an amazing coach. And then my club coach for Team Boca, Scott Baker, has been so amazing, pumping me up and being there through everything.”
Weinberg was offered a full college scholarship as a ninth grader, but her biggest thrill that year was leading her high school team, St. Andrews, to a state championship. Actually, the first thrill was just making the team, which featured 12 club team seniors. Then she made another of those excited calls to dad at work when she earned a starting berth. By the end of the year she had totaled 24 goals and 10 assists, was named MVP of the state tournament and made the “Faces in the Crowd” page of Sports Illustrated.
“It was the coolest thing in my life — still to this day,” she said. “We had 12 seniors on our team, I was a little freshman and had no idea what was going on. I was pretty intimidated and didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was a really good team that probably could have beaten some college teams — we were that good. I was so excited starting on that team. I thought it was a huge accomplishment. I think I played every minute with all the seniors, we won the state championship and it was awesome.”
Weinberg committed to Duke when she was a prep sophomore and, as in high school, became a starter her freshman year. She and classmates Pathman and Kaitlyn Kerr added some juice to a team that had struggled to score the year before in posting a losing record. Weinberg’s team-best 10 goals landed her a spot on the All-ACC Freshman team in addition to the All-ACC second team.
Then last season, with prep All-America Cobb joining the fold, Weinberg was part of perhaps the most explosive offensive team in Duke history. When combined with their lockdown defense that yielded only 13 goals all season, the Blue Devils were suddenly a top 10 team, the ACC regular season champs for the first time, and ultimately the NCAA runners up.
With so much firepower returning, the Blue Devils were picked first or second nationally in many preseason prognostications this year. At one point they were leading the country in scoring. But they struggled to finish opportunities against the other ACC elites, suffering shutout losses to No. 1 Florida State, No. 3 Virginia and No. 7 North Carolina. They played Wake Forest into overtime twice, but had to settle for a tie (1-1) and a sudden-death loss (1-0) in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, leaving them with a 12-5-2 overall record entering the NCAA Tournament.
“I think there’s definitely some pressure on us,” Weinberg said during the ACC stretch run. “We did so well last year but it kind of came as a surprise. We didn’t know we were going to be so good, so it was a pleasant surprise I’d say. This year we have the expectation that we have to get back there (to the College Cup), so it’s put a little pressure on us. But it’s good pressure. When teams come to play us, they know who we are now. We have a target on our back.
“As the season has progressed we haven’t done as well as people might have thought, so we still have something to prove. We go out there every game with the mindset that we’re the hunters and we have to break them down, not the other way around.”
Opponents have naturally targeted Weinberg, but she proved difficult to handle. She scored the golden goal both times Duke posted ACC overtime road wins, at Miami and Virginia Tech, and totaled eight goals overall in 10 regular season conference matches. Twice she had two goals in an ACC game.
“She’s our sharpest shooter,” Church said. “She’s like a sniper in the box. She bends balls, she keeps it low. You want her to get in those scoring positions because she has shown over the years that she has the consistent ability to finish.
“I like her anticipation, and she has a quick shot. She doesn’t get a ton of shots blocked. This year people have physically tried to knock her out of games but she’s become a little stronger on the ball and had more of an attacking mentality over a consistent period than she had her freshman and sophomore year. It’s part of the maturation process for her.”
Teammate Simpkins saw that maturation blossoming over the summer, when Weinberg was balancing an internship at a marketing company with her soccer workouts and an English class at the Duke in New York program.
“I couldn’t be any happier for her,” Simpkins said. “I’m so proud of her for stepping out of her comfort zone and going up there and doing something as a sophomore summer intern. We don’t have to do that. We’re not expected to do that. But that was a choice she made, and I’m so proud of her.”
Perhaps Simpkins should also be thankful that Weinberg showed up for all the workouts, considering that the epicenter of her lifelong secret dream was only a long cab ride from Chelsea Park.
“I’ve told Robbie I’d quit soccer to be on Broadway,” Weinberg laughed. “But I’m not a good singer at all. I have no ability whatsoever.”
She may be no threat to defect for the stage, but her pitch has been perfect with a soccer ball at her feet.
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