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The biggest obstacle between the field hockey team and a national title has been cleared.

After knocking out top-seeded North Carolina in the quarterfinals, the Blue Devils will have to beat Michigan State and the winner of the Maryland-Wake Forest semifinal to take home the seventh national title in Duke’s history and the field hockey team’s first. The national semifinal game is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Kentner Stadium in Winston-Salem, and the finals will be Sunday at 12:30 on the same field.

Head coach Beth Bozman came to Duke at the start of last season and revolutionized the program, which had been solid in the past but was far from championship-caliber. The Blue Devils are now in their second-straight Final Four—they lost to Wake Forest in a tight national championship game a year ago—with largely the same team that fell just short.

Bozman and Duke expected to return to the Final Four, but when the NCAA Tournament draw was released the Blue Devils were annoyed and frustrated at having to face No. 1 UNC in the second round.

After clearing last week’s hurdle, the path to the final game opened up. Instead of facing ACC powers Wake Forest or Maryland, Duke will match up against the lower-ranked Spartans today.

Michigan State, however, beat Duke 4-1 in the second game of the season when starting Blue Devil keeper Christy Morgan sat out with an injury. Duke outshot Michigan State 18-7 and had an 11-1 advantage in penalty corners and still lost by a wide margin, primarily because of lackluster play in net.

“This is a whole new season for us,” said Michigan State head coach Michele Madison despite the early-season victory. “We have put everything behind us. Of course, it always gives you confidence to know that you can beat a team, but that doesn’t mean anything at this point. It is all about what you do for 70 minutes between the lines on Friday at 4:30. That is all that matters.”

All year long, the lone non-conference loss has been a black mark on Duke’s record and may have played a role in the tournament committee’s decision to deny the team one of the four seeds.

“We are not even close to the team we were then,” Bozman said. “This has not been an easy season. Every week we’ve had to fix things, and we’ve had to scrape for everything we’ve gotten. Last year, we had a lot of luck on our side. This year, we’ve had to earn everything we’ve gotten.”

Duke defeated Maryland in the national semifinals before losing to the Demon Deacons last year. But this season, the Blue Devils’ opening loss to the Spartans, followed by losses in three out of four games to Maryland, Wake Forest and North Carolina, had the Blue Devils on the verge of a lost season heading into the NCAA Tournament.

But one win against the Tar Heels may have changed everything.

“There has not been the build up that there was last year,” sophomore midfielder Hilary Linton said. “We haven’t won a lot of major games, and [the UNC game] gave us a lot of confidence.”

The Spartans are led by the dangerous Veerle Goudswaard, who has notched a school-record 31 goals and 65 points. The speedy forward had two unassisted, breakaway goals against the Blue Devils in their matchup earlier this year.

The Blue Devils, though, didn’t have Goudswaard or the second game of the season on their minds this week in practice.

“We’re not worried about them as much as we are worried about how we are going to play,” senior Chrissie Murphy said.

In Bozman’s first season, last year’s Final Four was a bonus, a reward for a team that had accomplished more than any in Duke history. This time around, the Blue Devils thought they would be heading to Winston-Salem.

“This is for me, my sixth time, and it never gets old,” Bozman said. “It’s such a great feeling to know that you are one of just four teams left in the country playing.”

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