Duke faces early season test in Chapel Hill

Head coach Robbie Church doesn’t like to make it easy on his team early in the season, believing that a strenuous non-conference schedule will adequately prepare the Blue Devils for grueling ACC contests.

And after answering the bell flawlessly last weekend with two shutout victories over solid teams, No. 21 Duke (2-0) faces another series of challenges this weekend against Houston and defending national champion Notre Dame in the UNC-Nike Classic, which kicks off on Friday in Chapel Hill.

“It is what this team needs,” Church said. “This is a good team, and we need to become a better team, and this schedule will make us a better team.”

The Fighting Irish dominated nearly every team they met last year, going 21-2-2 over the course of their national title-winning campaign. Notre Dame is the favorite to repeat again this year, with seven starters returning, including 65-percent of its goal scoring output.

The Blue Devils will have to find a way to cope with the Notre Dame attack on Sunday, but Church, aware of the dangers of looking past any opponent, emphasized the importance of getting a good result against a talented Houston squad first.

“Notre Dame is an easy game to get ready for—everybody wants to play that game,” Church said. “Our real challenge for this week is Houston on Friday. Our goal is to win the [UNC-Nike Classic], and we can’t do that unless we get two wins.”

Houston (0-1) is coming off of a tough loss against Texas earlier in the week, but the Cougars, who return eight starters from a team that won 12 games last season, should pose a significant challenge to the Blue Devils. Duke takes on Houston in the opening game on Friday, at 5 p.m. at Fetzer Field, home of the Tar Heels.

The attention then shifts to Notre Dame at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Currently ranked No. 1 in the country after a 2-0 win over Wisconsin last week, the Fighting Irish will play two of the top teams in the nation with just one day of rest in between—as it faces off with No. 3 North Carolina Friday.

The Fighting Irish are led by senior first-team all-American striker Melissa Henderson, who tallied 17 goals and a staggering 45 points last season in attack. Notre Dame had very little trouble finding the back of the net a year ago so the Duke defense will inevitably be tested, making it crucial for Blue Devil midfielders Kaitlyn Kerr and Nicole Lipp to hold possession and not allow the Irish attackers to hoard the ball and run rampant.

Duke junior goalkeeper Tara Campbell, who is already third on the program’s all-time shutout list with 16, expects her defense to hold firm. Two years removed from an injury bug which thrust a group of overmatched freshmen into the fray, the Duke back line has since stabilized and matured greatly, becoming perhaps the team’s greatest strength.

“Whenever we had [defensive] issues in the past it would be, ‘Well, we’re inexperienced.’... Now we’re juniors and have been playing for two solid years,” Campbell said. “It’s a great part of our team now that our back line is so experienced and has played together so long.”

If the Blue Devils can keep Notre Dame off the scoreboard, Duke’s bevy of explosive attackers should find themselves with a number of scoring opportunities up front. The weekend looks to be a telling early-season test for a team which made it to the Sweet 16 last season, and Church is confident his Blue Devils won’t disappoint.

“With this team you can just see it in their eyes, in their training, and see when you have conversations with them, that this team is a very hungry team and wants to be successful,” Church said. “This team wants to be a great team, and they want to play with the elite teams in the country. We’ve got a chance this weekend.”


Share and discuss “Duke faces early season test in Chapel Hill” on social media.