With seven of the top 20 teams in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association preseason poll in the ACC, Duke will be faced with one of its most challenging schedules in recent memory. But unlike past years, the Blue Devils will have a plethora of experience to rely on this season.

Returning 22 players—including nine starters—and bringing in the sixth-ranked freshman class in the nation, No. 6 Duke is ready for all the challenges the 2014 season will present. After playing underclassman heavily in the past two years, the Blue Devils will be able to rely on a deep bench and talented upperclassman when they square off against five of the seven ranked teams in the ACC.

"The last two seasons, we feel like we’ve been a young team, and [we] relied a lot on younger players to do a lot of the heavy lifting for us," head coach Kerstin Kimel said. "We feel as though right now we’re a much more veteran team. Being a year older and the combination of that and a talented freshman class, we’re excited about our depth."

Headlining Blue Devils' defense is goalkeeper Kelsey Dureya, who led the conference in ground balls per game, saves per game and save percentage last season. Her performance earned her a spot on the All-American second team—the first freshman netminder to make the team in Duke history. The sophomore was also named to the Preseason All-ACC team, along with senior defender Taylor Virden.

"Every kid is different in terms of how they handle expectations," Kimel said. "I think for Kelsey Duryea, what we’ve really focused on this year with her is doing things and working on areas of her game that we weren’t really able to focus on last year because she was coming back from an injury. I think we’ve been able to push her a lot more physically than we have in the past and it shows."

Duryea will be protected by an experienced defensive corps, led by Virden and junior Gabby Moise. Virden, who was the first Blue Devil defender named to the All-American first-team since 2008, led the team in draw controls and was second in ground balls and caused turnovers. Moise, meanwhile, was third in the ACC with 1.30 caused turnovers per game. Last season, Duke’s defensive unit limited opponents to single-digit scoring 11 times, the third-most in the ACC.

On the other side of the ball, juniors Taylor Trimble and Kerrin Maurer will anchor a veteran offensive unit. Trimble and Maurer are the Blue Devils’ leading returning goal scorers, recording 37 and 35 tallies last season, respectively. Maurer also paced Duke with 35 assists. Both Blue Devils garnered All-ACC and All-South region honors, and Trimble was recently added to the United States national team roster.

After falling to Maryland in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament to end last season, Duke will face the Terrapins one final time March 1 before they leave the ACC for the Big Ten next season. Maryland, ranked No. 2 in the IWLCA poll, returns seven starters, including Inside Lacrosse National Player of the Year candidate Taylor Cummings. The Terrapins enter 2014 after winning their fifth consecutive ACC championship.

"We will miss Maryland," Kimel said. "We’ll miss playing them. We developed a tradition over the years. I’ve watched Maryland and played at Maryland—it’s hard to imagine the ACC without them."

The Blue Devils will later face the newest member of the ACC, Syracuse, March 29. The Orange, who are the only new conference member to have a woman’s lacrosse program, went undefeated during their final year in the Big East. Duke and Syracuse have not met on the field since an exhibition game during the 2008 season.

A familiar foe for Duke, however, will be North Carolina, the reigning NCAA champions. The Blue Devils will close out their spring slate against the No. 1 Tar Heels, who boast three preseason All-America first team members in midfielder Brittany Coppa and defenders Sloane Serpe and Margaret Corzel. As a redshirt sophomore, Corzel returned from a knee injury to start all 21 games for North Carolina and rank second in the ACC in ground balls per game.

"I think [the Duke-North Carolina] rivalry is a passionate one," Kimel said. "We both started our programs at the same time. It’s typically a one-goal game, no matter who on paper is supposed to beat the other. It’s a really respectful rivalry and we look forward to that game the same way they do."

Duke will kick off its regular season at home against Elon Friday.