Duke shoots for first ACC title

Head coach Kerstin Kimel threw on a practice jersey, put in a mouthpiece and assumed a defensive stance. In her only rep, she stole the ball from sophomore Kristen Waagbo, drawing cheers from the onlooking freshmen during Tuesday’s practice.

Although captain Stefanie Sparks said the play lightened the mood at practice the week before the ACC Championship, Kimel had a greater motive.

“I came to practice today kind of prepared to help,” Kimel said. “I feel like some of the stuff our defense has struggled with are things as a coach you can get in there and help facilitate some of the communication and directiveness.”

Winners of seven of their last eight ACC tournaments, the No. 3 Blue Devils (12-3, 3-1 in the ACC) head to Baltimore, Md., this weekend as the top seed for the second year in a row. Last year they lost 17-7 in the finals to Virginia, which eventually won the NCAA Championship.

“We’re looking to make history,” Sparks said. “We’ve never won the ACCs before, and I think we have a better chance this year than any other year.”

Duke will face the winner of Thursday’s play-in game between North Carolina (12-4, 2-2) and Virginia Tech (5-9, 0-4) Friday at 3:30 p.m. Both the men’s and women’s tournaments will be held at M & T Bank Stadium, the home of the Baltimore Ravens. Large crowds are expected, and Kimel said she expects a festival-like atmosphere.

“It’s great that they have it in such a venue for the sport,” Sparks said. “I feel like it’s going to be packed. I think it’s really exciting that we get to see the guys’ team too; it adds a little bit of school spirit. But I think being in that hot-bed area is the most exciting.”

Duke has excelled on the road this year. Only one of its three losses has come at an opponent’s field, and that was against top-ranked Northwestern.

“We’ve thrived under those circumstances,” goalie Megan Huether said. “We played at Maryland in front of a huge crowd, and I think we showed everyone up there what Duke lacrosse is all about.”

The Blue Devils are entering this year’s tournament with a much different mindset from a year ago. Maryland and Virginia had traditionally dominated the ACC, and so when Duke advanced to the championship game it was satisfied.

But by earning the No. 1 seed for the second consecutive year, the Blue Devils have their sights on taking home the trophy this time. The task will not be easy, however, considering that all but the Hokies are among the top nine teams in the nation.

“It’s a whole weekend,” Kimel said. “It’s two games—it’s a grind, but it’s nothing different than what we’ve already seen this season because of the schedule that we play. So I think that we’re really well prepared to play two really tough games in three days.”

If the Tar Heels advance past Virginia Tech Thursday, Duke will have a chance to avenge its only ACC loss this year, a 12-11 defeat March 12. The Blue Devils beat the Hokies 20-7 Friday.

Huether said North Carolina’s offensive transition took advantage of some Blue Devil breakdowns in the first meeting, but she said Duke can prevent that if it slows down the tempo early in the game.

With the high level of competition in the ACC Championship this weekend, the Blue Devils recognize that there are NCAA seeding implications at stake and that the tournament can help prepare them for their ultimate goal—winning a national title.

“It’s nice that you have a tournament warmup,” Sparks said. “It’s the whole mentality of ‘You win, you stay in. You lose, you’re out.’ It’s a great practice for NCAAs.”

Sunday’s championship game will begin at 1 p.m. and the men’s final will follow at 3:30.


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