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Duke preps for 2 tough opponents

A final four reunion is on hand this week.

When No. 4 Duke (9-1) travels to No. 12 Notre Dame (9-2) Thursday at 4 p.m. and No. 1 Northwestern (7-1) Saturday at 2 p.m., three of the four teams from last year's Final Four will be in action. The Blue Devils were eliminated 11-10 in overtime in the national semifinals by the Wildcats-who went on to win the national championship.

"We had a really exciting game against UVA [Saturday], but we know we can play a lot better," senior attack Kristen Waagbo said. "We're looking forward to playing other competition."

Calling the win over Virginia "exciting" might be an understatement. The Blue Devils rallied from six goals down and outlasted the Cavaliers in triple-overtime 19-18. Senior midfielder Rachel Sanford hit the game-winner with 13 seconds left in the third overtime.

Although such a win might exhilarate some teams, Duke knows that the win illuminated facets of its game that it must address if it hopes to beat the nation's top teams.

"We have to improve our organization on defense," head coach Kerstin Kimel said. "We let a lot of the UVA players beat us on simple stuff. We can't give up so many goals in the first half."

Preventing early deficits could be vital for the Blue Devils as they battle two formidable opponents on the road.

The Fighting Irish are on a four-game winning streak and are coming off an easy 15-7 win over Duquesne. Notre Dame went toe-to-toe with the Blue Devils last year in Durham before Duke escaped with an 11-10 victory.

Northwestern once again looks like the favorite to win its third straight national title. After dropping their first contest of the season, the Wildcats have reeled off seven straight wins. They defeated Notre Dame 18-10, obliterated No. 19 Vanderbilt 20-2 and blasted Connecticut 22-5 in their most recent game. Northwestern has a deep and talented squad highlighted by midfielder Kristen Kjellman.

The senior was awarded the Tewaaraton Trophy-given to the top player in the country-last year, when she scored 72 goals. The three-time All-American became Northwestern's all-time points leader in the Wildcats' win against the Huskies.

Last year, Duke witnessed Kjellman's prowess first-hand when she scored four goals and tallied one assist to help Northwestern end the Blue Devils' season.

Another encounter with the dominant Wildcats on Saturday might tempt Duke to look past Notre Dame. The Blue Devils, however, refuse to make that contest a be-all and end-all grudge match.

"It's not about payback," Waagbo said. "We have a tight series with Northwestern and there's a lot of emotion involved. I just hope this is one of the best games of my career."

Although Duke knows it can get better, its recent play has been very solid. The Blue Devils are on a five-game winning streak during which they have averaged over 16 goals per game. Three of the wins, however, came in the friendly confines of Koskinen Stadium. The change in venue, though, does not bother Duke-in fact, the Blue Devils' reaction to playing on the road is surprisingly positive.

"Last year, we were a great road team," Waagbo said. "We like a change of environment-it gets us excited."


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