Duke aims for for 1st NCAA title

Duke hopes that the third time will ultimately prove to be the charm in its quest for a national championship when it begins its regular season with two away games this weekend.

After two straight exits in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils have new reasons to believe that this will be the magical year. With a breadth of experience and a talented freshman class, Duke may have its best chance to capture the program's first-ever national title.

"The experience of playing in the final four should give us more confidence playing under pressure," senior attacker Kristen Waagbo said. "We're an older and more experienced team, and we have the knowledge of how hard we need to work."

The second-ranked Blue Devils start their march toward a national title at Denver tonight at 7 p.m. and continue their season-opening road trip when they visit No. 18 Stanford at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Eight of Duke's 12 starters from last season's squad are back this year, including eight of the top nine scorers.

Even with all the experience, a key ingredient for Duke to make a title run this year could be its freshman class. The Blue Devils have brought in a potentially outstanding recruiting class of eight freshmen who are starting to find their niche.

"The freshmen are doing a great job," senior attacker Leigh Jester said. "When they first came in, they fell right into place with the team. We're really excited about having them on the field."

Freshmen Lindsay Gilbride, Christie Barnes, Sara Giedgowd and Danielle Kachulis should all see significant playing time this year, head coach Kerstin Kimel said. Kachulis is arguably the gem of the class after being named a first-team All-American her senior year of high school and one of five finalists for the Heather Leigh Albert Award-given to the top high school lacrosse player in the country. Kachulis's speed helped her win two state track titles in Colorado.

"The development of our younger and inexperienced players is extremely important," Kimel said. "If we play our game and play good defense, we can play our younger kids. Not playing them could stand in the way of us winning a title."

Duke will need every inch of its bench play to get through yet another brutal schedule. The Blue Devils play eight of the other nine teams ranked in the preseason top 10, and 11 of their 15 matches are against ranked opponents. The highlight of this season's schedule will likely be a matchup at top-ranked and defending national champion Northwestern April 7. The Wildcats defeated Duke in overtime in the semifinals of the Final Four last season after the Blue Devils took the regular-season matchup.

The tough schedule, however, could be an asset for a Duke team that is hoping to get over the national championship hump. If past years serve as any indication, the Blue Devils have good reason to be optimistic.

"The teams that break through work their way through a couple of final fours," Kimel said. "Our final four experiences have given us a learning curve as well as a tremendous opportunity."

For the juniors and seniors on the team, this year is a chance to erase the memories of their two past tournament exits.

"We have a lot of people who played in big games," Jester said. "They're returning with experience this year, and it should give us an edge."


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