Entering the 2006 NCAA Tournament with a 26-3 record and the leadership of three experienced seniors-including National Player of the Year candidate Monique Currie-Duke was burdened with the pressure of winning the program's first national championship.
Maryland's 78-75 overtime victory over the Blue Devils in the title game, however, ended their season in disappointment, leaving this year's squad to start its campaign without its star player, without a No. 1 ranking and without that elusive national championship.
In a year during which many thought Duke would show a dip in performance-the squad entered the season ranked sixth-the Blue Devils now find themselves once again facing high expectations. But this time the team, although undefeated for the first time in program history, is making its run at the title with an extra bounce in its step.
"You would think that there's more pressure now on this team because we've gone undefeated and there's all that talk about that, but you know last year from day one it was, 'national championship, national championship,'" Abby Waner said. "This year we've never put that kind of pressure on ourselves. Obviously, our goal has always been a national championship, but you can feel the pressure ease a little bit."
In spite of its success, Duke has managed to escape the external pressures it faced last year, even as it still seeks the program's first title.
Adding to the team's poise is the presence of head coach Gail Goestenkors. Harding said Goestenkors has become "more relaxed" over the last few years and is a calming factor for the Blue Devils during games. The four-time national coach of the year has encouraged her team not only to play with passion, but to have fun on the court as well.
"I think Coach G learns something every year," Alison Bales said. "This year she's really trying to make it a lot of team effort, a lot of teamwork, just enjoying this time."
Duke is having more fun off the court, too. Since the beginning of the season, Goestenkors has promoted team bonding in various ways, such as cooking a dinner of choice for each class in her home.
"We picked spaghetti, so we didn't give her much of a challenge," Bales said of the meal she and fellow senior captain Lindsey Harding shared with their coach. "But I think the freshmen ended up having crab, or crab legs, or steak, or something tough."
Bales also said the Blue Devils spend more time together outside of basketball this year than in past seasons. Along with her roommates Harding and junior Emily Waner, the center often invites the team over to their house to watch TV or have dinner.
The team's camaraderie off the court has helped develop the ease of communication that is essential to Duke's style of play this season.
Without Currie, the Blue Devils' go-to player who averaged 16.4 points per game last season, Duke has transitioned to rely on a variety of players in big games-not just one.
"You take what you have and you try to make the most of it," Goestenkors said. "We knew we had to have a great inside attack and that had to start with Alison Bales. And then on the perimeter we knew for us to do the things we wanted to do, Lindsey Harding had to become much more of an offensive factor than she was in previous years. So those were going to be the two cogs for us, and then we were going to build around them."
Harding and Bales have led the Blue Devils all season, but the fate of the team has not been left to them alone. Abby Waner, Wanisha Smith and Carrem Gay have all made significant contributions for Duke as well.
The variety of options the Blue Devils have is what Harding said sets this year's team apart from last season's squad.
"It's just the team that's different-it's the balance," Harding said. "Last year we could be calm, but everyone knew who was going to take the shot at the end. But now, they don't know. And that's what makes this team special because anyone can take that shot-that's what makes it great."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.