The Blue Devils are spending their Oct. 31 near Franklin Street, but they won’t be partying at the popular Halloween hub.
Duke will face its arch-rival No. 4 North Carolina at 7 p.m. Thursday night at Fetzer Field. The Halloween matchup is the final regular-season game for both teams.
The No. 25 Blue Devils (8-6-4, 5-4-3 in the ACC) come into the game playing their best soccer of the year. They are riding a five-game unbeaten streak that has catapulted them back into the national rankings, highlighted by an overtime road win against Notre Dame, which at the time was ranked ninth in the country.
“It’s not one thing, but a combination of a number of things that have led us to a nice little run that we have right now,” head coach Robbie Church said.
He’s right—there has been no single star leading their current hot streak. Sparked by the play of goalkeeper Meghan Thomas, Duke allowed only two goals in the first four games of that stretch. The offense, led by seniors Laura Weinberg and Kaitlyn Kerr, keyed their last victory against Pittsburgh, when the Blue Devils erupted for a season-high six goals in the first half en route to a 6-3 triumph.
Duke will need to be firing on all cylinders against North Carolina (15-3-0, 9-3-0), which is ranked fourth in the nation and has allowed a mere 0.55 goals per game. The Blue Devils will have to deal with the Tar Heel’s dynamic duo of Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai. These two seniors have combined to score 20 goals on the season—only two fewer than the entire Duke team.
“Both of them are absolutely great players,” Church said. “They’re different types of players: Crystal is ultra-quick, and she is an unbelievable athlete. We’ll probably have a number of people marking her and try to deny her the ball as much as possible. Kealia’s speed is outstanding. We have to keep her in front of us and we can’t let her get behind us—that’s the key.”
The rivalry game carries with it tremendous ACC playoff implications for the Blue Devils. Duke currently holds the sixth seed, and a win or a tie would guarantee them a spot in the eight-team conference playoffs. Even with a loss, the Blue Devils could still very well end up in the postseason.
The only scenario that results in Duke missing the playoffs is if they lose to North Carolina, combined with a Maryland victory against Pittsburgh, a Wake Forest tie with N.C. State and a win by Boston College against Syracuse.
Boston College would then take the sixth seed with 19 points, leaving Duke, Wake Forest, and Maryland in a three-way tie at 18 points for the final two postseason slots. Maryland would get the seventh seed because they would have one more conference win than both Duke and Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons would edge out the Blue Devils for the eighth playoff spot based on their head-to-head matchup.
The Tar Heels are currently ranked fourth in the ACC standings and have clinched a playoff berth as well as a first-round home game in the playoffs. The possibility remains that Duke and North Carolina could actually face each other again in the first round of the ACC playoffs, adding an intriguing strategic twist to this regular-season contest.
With so much at stake, emotions and adrenaline are sure to be in abundance leading up to the game. Church said he will look for the team to harness their excitement and translate it into energy on the field, but not to the point where they are playing out of control. Having played many top opponents already this year, the team is well aware of how intense these games can be.
“The most important thing for us is to win the competitive part [of the game],” Church said. “We have to compete, and we’ve got to compete with discipline. Carolina brings out the most in competitors. If you don’t compete with them, they will squash you.”