Duke made it to the postseason for the 17th straight season. Now that they're in, they will have to put the last half of the season behind them and hope history repeats itself.
The ninth-ranked Blue Devils will take on No. 19 Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Championship Friday at 4 p.m. at Arlotta Stadium in South Bend, Ind. Although Duke owns a 6-0 all-time record against the Cardinal, the last time the two faced off was 2008, meaning Friday's game will be a fresh matchup for two teams exiting the grind of conference play.
“I personally like the challenge of playing somebody we haven’t played before,” Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “The fact that it’s a new opponent is exciting, it’s different. It’s a different style. They’re a West Coast team and I like the challenge of preparing for someone we haven’t played.”
History is on the Blue Devils' side in more ways than just their record against Stanford. Duke (9-7) has been solid in the first round under the leadership of Kimel, who has led the team to a 12-3 record in the opening game of the playoffs.
But the Blue Devils will be taking a clean-slate mentality into the postseason. After rattling off a four-game winning streak, Duke hit a rough patch, finishing the season 2-4.
“No matter how our season’s gone, we always take the approach that you start a new season,” Kimel said. “Everybody’s got a clean record. Especially for our girls, because we are fortunate enough to be finished with school when the tournament starts. It genuinely feels that way for us.”
Treating the first round as a fresh start will be good for the Blue Devils after ending the season with a disappointing 7-5 loss in the ACC quarterfinals against Virginia. Duke ranks 19th in the nation in scoring offense with an average of 12.94 goals per game and will hope to bounce back from the five-goal effort in the loss to the Cavaliers against a Cardinal team that has held opponents to 8.83 goals per contest.
Aside from getting the offense back in gear, Duke will also have to make sure it does not look ahead of a dangerous Stanford squad, as the Cardinal average 13.83 goals per game. But Kimel said she is confident that her team is well aware of the task at hand.
“Our girls have no problem with [looking ahead to future matchups]," Kimel said. "I don’t think in any way, shape or form they’re going to look past Stanford. Stanford has had kind of an up-and-down year. They’ve beaten two teams that we haven’t…Georgetown and Notre Dame. Our kids are very, very focused on that."
With their focus rested squarely on Stanford and not on the potential second-round matchup against High Point or Notre Dame—both teams the Blue Devils have faced in the past month and a half—Duke will have an advantage should they make it past the Cardinal in the first round.
“The advantage this year is if we do advance, the advantage of having Notre Dame or High Point is that we have played them,” Kimel said. “The advantage of having them in the second round is that you don’t have to prepare for a whole new team in 48 hours.”
One of the tougher sacrifices of the weekend will not take place on the field. Duke's seniors will be forced to miss the official graduation ceremony Sunday.
But the Blue Devils missing the proceedings will not be completely out of luck, as the Duke athletic department has an annual graduation ceremony for those forced to miss the festivities in Wallace Wade Stadium back in Durham.
“The athletic department has always done a supplemental graduation for senior athletes competing on graduation weekend and it’s really nice,” Kimel said. “It’s really special and it’s gotten bigger. For a couple years it was just our team and maybe a couple of tennis kids. [Now], baseball has done it the past couple years, there are track kids who are competing this weekend and this year the lacrosse team will be involved.”
Whether or not the supplemental graduation equals the grandeur of the official ceremony, the emotions are still the same, as players who have committed four years of their life are forced to say goodbye to coaches and teammates alike.
“It’s a hard time,” Kimel said of graduation. “Your time is coming to a close with the class you’ve grown close with over four years….You kind of do your best to compartmentalize those emotions so that you can stay focused on what’s going on."