After posting two impressive wins in the Big Ten/ACC Cup for the third time in three years, the Blue Devils will remain on the road as they pivot toward the beginning of conference play riding a stellar start on the defensive end of the field.
Newly-minted No. 1 Duke will travel north to take on No. 10 University of Virginia Friday evening at 5 at University Hall Turf Field in Charlottesville, Va., in the teams’ ACC opener before heading to Harrisonburg, Va., Sunday at 1 p.m. to face No. 15 James Madison at the JMU Field Hockey Complex. The Blue Devils have won their first three games, joining the Dukes as two of just 13 Division I teams left that remain undefeated.
“We’ve been very determined if we’re not really clicking on the attacking side of things, we’re going to really bear down defensively and give ourselves a chance to still create the attack,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “I’m really proud of the way we did that [against Northwestern]. They didn’t lose their focus on trying to work out our attack by playing good defense.”
Last weekend, the Blue Devils (3-0) rode the strength of their defense to two tight victories against then-No. 6 Maryland and then-No. 14 Northwestern by scores of 2-0 and 1-0, respectively. Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Sammi Steele was named ACC Defensive Player of the Week after she blocked 6 of the Wildcats' shots on goal to post her third straight shutout. Duke joins No. 5 Syracuse and Cornell as the only schools that have yet to give up a goal in 2017.
“[Steele] was awesome. We gave up a lot of corners, so a lot of the shots are kind of hidden within the corners,” Bustin said. “We can do a better job cleaning up our circle defense, but [I’m] really proud of the way our corner defense played. The combination of Alyssa [Chillano] and Sarah Furey has been important in the attitude and the maturity that we have in the backfield.”
If the Blue Devils are to continue their best defensive start to a season since 1991, they will face a tough test Friday against the Cavaliers, the highest-scoring offense in the nation. They are led by midfielder Tara Vittese, who was named ACC Offensive Player of the Week after scoring all five goals for Virginia in its 5-3 win against Monmouth Sunday. The offensive explosion was the most scored by a single player in the ACC since 2015, and the first time a Cavalier had scored five goals in a game since 1975.
In addition to Vittese, the rest of the Virginia offense has been dominant as well in 2017. The Cavaliers (3-1) lead the nation in penalty corners taken, assists, points and goals, though these numbers were boosted by blowout victories against Fairfield and Columbia in which Virginia outscored its opponents by a combined score of 20-1.
“They’ve got probably one of the best players in the country on their team in Tara Vittese. She’s really talented, and their system finds a way to get the most out of her, and so that’s something that we’ve got to pay attention to and respect for sure,” Bustin said. “Hopefully our team defense and our team management of the opponents’ attack will be able to decrease their chances and at least force some turnovers.”
Against James Madison, the Blue Devils will encounter a less formidable offense, but a very competent defense. The Dukes (4-0) are ranked 11th in the nation in goals against average at 0.68 and have recorded two shutouts in a row after holding then-No. 23 Old Dominion and then-No. 25 Liberty University to three combined goals to begin the season.
On the offensive end, James Madison is led by junior forward Miranda Rigg, who already has four goals for the Dukes. Although Duke did not face many scoring threats in its first two games, its next two are likely to be more similar to the Blue Devils’ victory against Northwestern, in which they faced a more concerted offensive attack.
“The defense has been playing really well, limiting the number of shots, [so] I really haven’t had to do all that much yet,” Steele said. “It’s been a really solid team effort so far. [The senior backs] have been playing together for a while, so just to have that leadership in the backfield really helps us keep a solid defensive line.”