In a controversial defeat Tuesday against UNC Wilmington, head coach John Kerr received a red card during a critical exchange late in the game.
Without Kerr on the sideline, Duke will strive to make a statement in the ACC with a home victory against the reigning national champion North Carolina (6-1-1, 2-0-1 in the ACC) Friday at 7 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium.
The Blue Devils (3-4-1, 1-1-1) played at a high level for the majority of Tuesday’s loss, only conceding two goals on a penalty shot and swift counterattack late in the second half. This lapse in the usually strong back line has been a focus heading into Friday’s matchup, especially for senior goalkeeper James Belshaw.
“Concentration is the key,” Belshaw said. “As a back four, myself included, we’ve been solid all year. We’ve not made mistakes, and we’ve defended well. We can blame our excuses on the referee or whatever, but we weren’t good enough on Tuesday night.“
Although the defense has focused on regaining its top form, Kerr has stressed the importance of a detail-oriented approach.
“We’ve kept everything positive and made sure that everyone is on the same page,” Kerr said. “We’re getting our little details right with set plays, and how we’re going to work on transition and making sure that defensively we’re where we need to be. We did a good job today [in training] and were on the same page.”
Despite the absence of Kerr on the sidelines, the team is confident in the coaching staff and their game plan.
“We have two other great coaches in coach Brady and coach Amos that are leaders,” Belshaw said. “Coach Kerr has prepared us like a normal game. We’re going to miss having him on the sideline, but we can’t dwell on that.”
As for key matchups on the pitch, Kerr was quick to praise the Tar Heels’ talent at multiple positions.
“They can come at you from all angles,” Kerr said. “We’re very aware of their strengths and we’re hoping to match them in work ethic defensively, and we’ve got to come alive offensively.”
Kerr maintains that the key to defeating the Tar Heels will be finding an effective offensive game plan to break down their back line.
“It is essential to make sure that we’re keeping UNC on their toes—make sure they’re defending and having to work hard,” Kerr said. “We have to do a better job of keeping possession and understanding their pressure, because they’ve got good defenders and they move very well together in terms of pressuring you. So we’re looking at opportunities to break pressure and get at them.”
And playing against the rival and No. 8 Tar Heels, there is always an added level of pressure and excitement.
“I mean, it’s North Carolina,” Belshaw said. “[Games like this are] what you come to Duke for. [It’s] the biggest game of the year for us.”