Duke has beaten three conference champions on its road to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals.
The third-seeded Blue Devils (15-5-2) will face yet another conference champion, Big Ten conference title-holders and top-seeded Penn State (19-3-1) Friday at Jeffrey Field in University Park, Pa. at 7 p.m.
“We know they’re good,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “We’re looking forward to playing them, the number one seed in our bracket. They deserve that. They had a great run in the regular season, and it’s going to be a tough game. It’s going to be a great challenge going to the environment up there.”
The Blue Devils have won with flair during their tournament run, starting off with a 6-0 thrashing of Loyola Maryland, before defeating Miami of Ohio 4-1 and avenging a 1-0 loss to Virginia during the regular season with a 3-1 win Sunday.
Penn State has clung on to get to this stage, winning a penalty shootout 3-2 against Big Ten rivals Michigan. The game finished 1-1, a low scoring game by the Nittany Lions’ standard, as they average more than three goals per game.
“We need to have an attacking mentality, and we’ll still continue to go at them,” Church said. “It’ll probably come down to: We’ll have some chances, and they’ll have some chances. They’re a very high-scoring team too. So we’re both going to have some chances, but who finishes their chances?”
The Blue Devils’ high-powered offense, two goals away from the single-season school record, has scored 65 goals in 22 matches. Passing has keyed the offense, with the team recording a school-record 77 assists this season.
Freshman Cassie Pecht leads the nation with 15 assists.
“We knew Cassie, all along, would be a great player,” Church said. “I knew she was going to be an offensive talent, but she’s faster and quicker and stronger than we thought she’d be. She’s also done a really good job from a defensive standpoint…. We’ve moved her all over the place. She’s just responded wherever she’s gone and she’s a great team player.”
Forward Kim DeCesare, who moved from her previous position in midfield this season, credited Pecht for many of her 16 goals this season. With two goals in each game this past weekend, DeCesare now holds the school-record for multi-goal games in a season.
“It’s just unbelievable. A lot of her assists have been finished by one-time finishes,” DeCesare said. “It means the assist was that good.”
Both DeCesare and junior Laura Weinberg, the highest-scoring duo in the country, have 16 goals.
“We’d have been happy if [DeCesare] finished at five, we didn’t know she’d go on to get 16,” Church said. “I don’t think she’s done yet, and we don’t need her to be done yet.”
On the other side Penn State is led in scoring by three players, senior Christine Nairn and forward Maya Hayes, with 15 goals each, and freshman Mallory Weber with 13. Nairn adds 10 assists from her position in midfield.
The Nittany Lions will also have the added advantage of playing at home where they have suffered only one loss, a 3-2 defeat to defending champions Stanford. This is Duke’s fourth trip to the quarterfinals, but its only victory at this stage came at home during last season’s run to the final.
Church said the team surprised many by recording their first victory against Virginia since 2008, a sign that it is peaking at the right time.
“This year it took a little bit longer for us to click, but right now we’re on fire and on our way up,” DeCesare said. “We’re finally working together both offensively and defensively. We saw bits and pieces of it throughout the year but now we’re doing it more consistently.”
For the Blue Devils to advance to the semifinals for a second consecutive season, they will need to continue their goal-scoring exploits and new-found defensive consistency to knock off another high-seed on the road.
But with the trip to San Diego, Calif. for the College Cup within reach, the players will have to remain focused on the immediate task at hand.
“This is the one you really have to focus on because you’re right there,” Church said. “You can see it, you can taste it, but you’ve got 90 minutes up on the number one seed. It’s going to be as tough a game as we’ve played all year. We’ve got to attack, we’ve got to be ready to go. And we will be.”