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Christina Gibbons relished underdog role at Duke

Christina Gibbons was not highly rated out of high school. Four years later she was a 1st Round pick in NWSL

Christina Gibbons was not highly rated out of high school. Four years later she was a 1st Round pick in NWSL

Potential. It’s a buzzword often used in sports. How much do particular athletes or teams have and will they actually achieve it? It’s one of the most universal questions in sports and also one of the more perplexing. It’s hard to quantify and often difficult to determine whether someone will meet it. Sometimes it even gets overlooked, at least at first.

Coming out of high school, Christina Gibbons wasn’t a highly recruited player. Over the course of her career at Duke, she became one of the most-decorated players in the 2017 class.  By the time she left Duke last fall, the Raleigh native and two-time captain reached third place on the team’s all-time minutes list, averaging 88.56 minutes per game.

Less than two months after leaving the Blue Devils, the FC Kansas City rookie became the highest-drafted player to come out of Duke and attended her first full USWNT camp in the same week. Gibbons’ path to being a first-round draft pick is an intriguing one.

There’s no metric for the type of grit Christina Gibbons displays when she uses every inch of her 5’6” frame to deny an opponent ground. There’s also no way to measure the resolve of a team dedicated to improving team culture after a disappointing season, as Duke did following a 2014 season that saw the perennial NCAA tournament team sitting at home, missing the tournament altogether.

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“I think every season has its ups and downs for sure, and they are all learning experiences…you go through those ups and downs, but they’re what make you good in the end and they’re what bring the team together. They’re almost necessary over a season, and every season has them.”

Suffice it to say Gibbons and the Blue Devils had more learning experiences than most the last few years. After that injury-marred season in 2014, the team got together and focused on changing the team culture.

“We basically just got to together and tried to spend a lot more like quality time together. We would put our phones away and sit down and like really get to know each other. So we went over things like people’s strengths and their weaknesses, you know, some things that they struggle with, some things that they are really proud of.

“I think that what we did off the field definitely translated on the field. We were just able to trust each other a lot more we just knew each better. We were on the same page.”

Those bowling trips and meals together paid dividends the following fall. Unsurprisingly, Duke’s path to the National Championship game wasn’t completely linear. They would suffer setbacks and failures. A 4-2 loss to Virginia Tech saw the Blue Devils fall to 0-2-2 in ACC play. The game would be a turning point for Duke, however, who would storm back to make the NCAA tournament and then win three games on the road to make the College Cup.

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Duke, playing in front of a friendly crowd in Cary, NC, stunned Florida State, who was in the midst of five straight years of making the College Cup on Friday night. Throughout that final weekend, the Blue Devils seemed loose, cracking a couple of jokes at the weekend’s press conferences.

“I think that honestly comes from being the underdog,” Gibbons said about her team’s relaxed approach. “I think we were there with really no expectations. No one really expected us to win that game against Florida State that was Friday night, so I think for us it was just enjoying every moment and trying to be fully present in every moment.”

On Sunday, Duke came up short, losing to Penn State, 1-0. Heading into Gibbons’ senior season, however, the narrative surrounding the team changed. Returning 10 of 11 starters from the prior year, the Blue Devils were pegged as one of the favorites to win it all.

The attention got the captain thinking about the difference between expectation and potential. She penned an insightful blog about it just before the 2016 season kicked off.

“I was kind of reading that Duke had all this potential and we were there at the College Cup last year, now we have the experience and stuff like that,” Gibbons said. “I was just thinking we had always talked as a team about sometimes you just have to look at potential and be like, ‘Okay well, how’s this potential going to translate into actually making it happen?’”

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As often happens, things didn’t go to plan for the Blue Devils. A rash of injuries left Duke without its two leading scorers from the 2015 national finalist team as well as Olympic bronze medalist Rebecca Quinn. Those tough breaks could have easily derailed their season. However, they persevered. The adaptable Gibbons, who moved to midfield in wake of Quinn’s injury, was crucial to the team’s ability to adjust without a substantial amount of its starters.

Duke nearly made the College Cup again, dropping a hard-fought quarterfinal match to eventual runner-up West Virginia, 1-0, that included a controversial shot off the crossbar from Duke that the referee determined didn’t cross the line.

“Losing players and battling with injuries was, I think, a different battle (than 2015) because some of those people are so talented and such an integral part of the team,” Gibbons said about her senior season. “Different people had to set up, but in the end we sort of gelled together in a different way and looking back, I’m still really proud of how far we went.”

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She should also be proud of how far she’s come individually. For the defender, her journey at Duke serves as motivation as she still has a lot of “lofty goals” she aims to accomplish as a professional.

“It‘s been sort of a roller coaster,” Gibbons said. “I’m not going to say there weren’t times that were extremely challenging, but I think it’s been extremely rewarding seeing how far I’ve been able to push myself and how far I’ve come, but also really inspiring for me to look back at where I was four years ago and thinking about the challenges I faced coming into Duke, a not very highly recruited player, and seeing what I was able to do with it.  It really only gives me inspiration going forward because I’ve done a lot, but I know I have a lot more to improve on.”


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