Alaska is the place to go for snow skiing or dog sledding or if you are just wanting to seek a new adventure. “The Last Frontier” offers vast opportunities to explore mountain ranges and glaciers -- hiking, fishing or just watching wildlife.

With only three months of bearable outdoor weather, soccer is usually not a popular choice for athletes in Alaska.

Duke freshman Kelly Cobb is trying to change those preconceived notions about the sport she loves in the state where she was raised.

Like any typical eight-year-old girl growing up in the United States, Cobb sampled lots of activities in her younger years, trying her hand at things like gymnastics and tap dancing.  But when she found soccer, Cobb knew it was the right fit.

While there were not a lot of opportunities for her game to develop, it was not like Cobb was living in one of the state’s remote fishing villages.  She was growing up in Chugiak, a town of 26,000 located just 25 minutes down the road from the state’s largest city of Anchorage.

[Cobb] wants the spotlight – she’s not going to pass the responsibility as an attacker – she wants to score big goals.
-- Duke head coach Robbie Church

“People always think where I grew up is barren and uncivilized and it snows all the time, but it’s not,” Cobb said.  “There are a good three months where we can play outside.  We have a ton of winter, but there’s stuff to do then, too.”

The daughter of a former Cincinnati football player, Cobb knew that to improve her soccer skills, she needed more time to dedicate to them.  Cobb had access to gyms and indoor facilities, so when the fields were covered in snow, she and her father Gardner found a way to work on her game.

“Her dad knew that in the environment they would have to do some things on their own,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said.  “He didn’t have a great soccer background, but he learned.  He did an excellent job with her.  They spent a lot of time on one-on-one – going right to the goal, and that’s what made a difference in her play.”

Cobb agrees that her father has been a huge part of her training and growth as an athlete, helping work on her technical skills when she was cooped up inside those tiny gyms, and watching the game to improve her tactical knowledge.  A few years ago, the Anchorage Dome opened giving her access to a full-size soccer field during the winter months. 

When she did get the chance to play outside or at the Dome, Cobb took full advantage of the opportunity.

“Indoor soccer was not for me,” Cobb said.  “Playing in small spaces is not the strength of my game.  I’m a counter-attacking forward with speed that needs space to shoot and score on a full-size net.”

That's the style of play that started attracting attention from college coaches at tournaments and showcases.  Church first noticed Cobb at a Disney College Showcase over the winter holidays. Cobb was a sophomore for a little-known, yet really talented Alaskan team that had the college coaches buzzing. Church made sure he found some time to check the Alaskans out, and was immediately impressed with Cobb’s play.

“You know she wants to score goals, and wants the responsibility of attacking,” Church said.  “Sometimes, forwards go east and west, but she goes north and south and attacks the goal.  She wants the spotlight – she’s not going to pass the responsibility as an attacker – she wants to score big goals.”

The Alaska Pipeline
Former NCAA stars born in the 50th state
Name College Sport Years Played
Trajan Langdon Duke Basketball 1994-1999
Carlos Boozer Duke Basketball 1999-2001
Mario Chalmers Kansas Basketball 2005-2008
Steve Smith USC Football 2003-2006
Mark Schlereth Idaho Football 1984-1988
Cris Kuper North Dakota Football 2001-2005
Ty Conklin UNH Hockey 1998-2001
Matt Carle North Dakota Hockey 2003-2006

Cobb’s aggressive style of play also scored her an invitation to train with U.S. Soccer, which definitely helped raise the level of her game.  She trained with the U-18 U.S. National Team in 2009 and 2010, and played with the U-20 squad over the summer before college. 

“What I gained from working with the U.S. Team was the experience of coaches like April Heinrichs and Steve Swanson,” Cobb said.  “I gained the tactical part of the game I had been missing – the vision, the one-touch passing, and playing with players that give it back to me and go.  When you play with the best, you can test yourself, and see how you need to get better because your weaknesses are more exposed.”

When it came to choosing a college, Cobb knew no matter where she picked would be a long distance from home.  There are no universities in Alaska that sponsor women’s soccer.

Church knew he could use an outright goal scorer on the Blue Devil squad, and despite spending just five hours on campus during her visit, Cobb believed Duke was the perfect fit.

Interestingly, the toughest part of Cobb’s transition to collegiate soccer would be the change in the weather.  In the hottest part of the day in Alaska, thermometers reach a whopping 70 degrees on average – much different than the heat and humidity in North Carolina. 

Church thought it would be a major problem for Cobb during the preseason.  She made it through, but during the weeks of the Duke Nike Classic in early September, Cobb developed spots on her skin that turned out to be sun poisoning.  It did not seem to slow her down though as she collected two goals and four assists on the weekend, earning Top Drawer and Soccer America National Player of the Week honors.

“I remember coming into preseason practice the first day and it was unbelievably humid and hot,” Cobb said.  “After we ran that day, we had to do some technical drills and I was just dying.  I think I have acclimated and it is no longer an excuse or anything.”

In her first 11 games, Cobb leads the squad with eight goals and 22 points.  Five of her scores have been game-winners, and no other player on the team has more than nine points.  Duke is 10-1, and ranks fourth nationally behind Stanford, Oklahoma State and UCLA.

“It’s awesome to come in and do so well, but I owe it a lot to my teammates because they are so unselfish and they support me in what I’m doing,” Cobb said. “When you’re having success on the field, it obviously makes your life a lot better overall.  It’s a confidence boost.” 

"Kelly has that knack to score right when she gets in," said redshirt sophomore Kim DeCesare. "She brings everyone up when she gets after it so quickly. It just pumps everyone up and makes everyone else want to score goals."

Duke is off to its best start in school history at 11-1, and is 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference play.  The Blue Devils have posted three victories against ranked opponents so far this season -- No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 6 Florida State and No. 21 South Carolina.