Last October, Kealia Ohai poked in an 88th-minute goal to give North Carolina a 1-0 victory against Duke. Eleven months later, Ohai had another big game winner. Teaming up with Blue Devils Mollie Pathman and Kelly Cobb, Ohai scored to give the U.S. U-20 women’s national team the gold at the U-20 women’s World Cup this September.
When No. 7 North Carolina heads to Koskinen Stadium to play No. 6 Duke tonight at 7 p.m, it will certainly be the former goal that remains on the mind of Pathman and her Blue Devil teammates as they seek their first ever home win against the Tar Heels.
“We haven’t discussed the game,” Pathman said of her relationship with Ohai. “We know it’s part of the deal. I’ve been friends with Kealia [and other Tar Heel players] way before we chose colleges… so we kind of separate that a little bit, but I’m sure I’ll be friends with them after the game. But during the game, it’s gametime, so they’re my competitors.”
Beyond the rivarly, Thursday’s match is also Duke’s last conference contest of the regular season, and home-field advantage in the ACC tournament is on the line.
The Blue Devils currently sit third in the ACC, but North Carolina, No. 11 Virginia, and No. 12 Wake Forest all have two or more conference games to make up the difference. A win would give Duke a guaranteed home-field advantage in the quarterfinal round of the ACC tournament.
“This is our last shot at points in the ACC,” head coach Robbie Church said. “We’re one of the first teams to be finished. So it would be a booster.”
Duke (11-3-2, 5-2-2 in the ACC) will certainly face a tough test in the Tar Heels. Although North Carolina (8-3-2, 4-2-1) has played just two games in October, it enters Thursday’s match on a three-game winning streak.
The Tar Heels have outscored their opponents 11-1 in that span.
“They’re very quick up front,” Church said. “They’re very dangerous up front. They like to serve a lot of long balls…. We play different styles, but they play their style very well.”
In contrast, the Blue Devils have already played four October contests, and Church noted that the relative freshness of the two teams could be of concern to Duke.
With six players receiving regular minutes at the forward positions and a number of Blue Devils playing multiple positions during the course of a game, however, Duke may be able to overcome potential fatigue.
“I definitely think our depth is one of our strongest assets,” Pathman said. “We can sub in a lot of people, and we will need to do that in the Carolina game. There’ll be a lot of running because we’re going to high pressure…. It’s awesome that we don’t really have a drop when we make the subs and that so many people are so versatile.”
So far this season, Pathman has rotated between playing outside back and wing-forward, and against North Carolina she may see action at midfield, Church said.
And the Blue Devil sophomore is not the only one excelling in different places across the pitch. Freshman Cassie Pecht and redshirt junior Kim DeCesare have also played a variety of roles for Duke, earning time at forward and midfield. Playing primarily on the outside, Pecht has picked apart opposing defenses with her crosses and ranks second in the ACC with nine assists.
“She does a good job with her body,” Church said. “She shapes her body up well, gets her hips around it, [and] has a compact swing with her legs. And not only does she get balls in, she knows where she’s serving it. Some people just rip a ball in and hope it goes to somebody, but she’ll take a look. She’ll be composed. She’ll find them…. She has a great soccer sense about her.”
While Pecht is a big reason the Blue Devils lead the ACC in assists by 10, DeCesare has helped Duke become the fourth-best scoring offense in the nation.
DeCesare, who had missed playing time earlier in the season due to an ankle injury, ranks third in the ACC in goals as well as points, and the redshirt junior’s 11th tally of the season earned Duke the tie against the Demon Deacons this past Sunday.
“Her strength is in the air, and a lot of the goals that she’s scoring are coming from great services on the flanks,” Church said. “We are a good serve-and-finish team, and she’s been on the end. But Kimmy always works hard. She anticipates things.”
The Blue Devils will still need to overcome one of the nation’s stiffest defenses as North Carolina has shut out seven of its 13 opponents.
Nevertheless, with Pecht, DeCesare, and Pathman—as well as ACC-leading scorer, junior Laura Weinberg—Duke has the offensive weapons to defeat the Tar Heels in Koskinen Stadium for the first time and to secure a valuable tournament seed.
“Any time you play an athletic event against North Carolina, it’s always something you remember after,” Church said. “So [a win] would definitely do that, but it would give us a huge three points and earn us a homefield game on Oct. 28.”