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Blue Devils seek smooth start to the season

Goalkeeper James Belshaw is the lone senior on this year’s Duke squad, that will need its veteran defensive unit to step up against Notre Dame.
Goalkeeper James Belshaw is the lone senior on this year’s Duke squad, that will need its veteran defensive unit to step up against Notre Dame.

With two scoreless exhibition matches in the preseason, the Blue Devils will be looking to improve their offense in their first match of the regular season.

No. 21 Duke will take on No. 18 Notre Dame Saturday, beginning their season on the road at Alumni Stadium in South Bend, Ind.

The Blue Devils will aim to improve on their preseason offensive performances, which resulted in a 0-0 draw to Ohio State and a 1-0 loss to Michigan State.

“I am concerned, but I am optimistic as well,” head coach John Kerr said.

An injury to sophomore Nick Palodichuk—the leading returning scorer from the 2011 season who left the field early against Ohio State—has limited the offense, but he is expected to play Saturday. The team’s leading scorer from last season, Andrew Wenger, was the No. 1 selection in this year’s MLS SuperDraft.

Although the team is led by veterans on defense, with senior goalkeeper James Belshaw and junior defender Sebastien Ibeagha serving as co-captains in the back, the offense is comprised predominantly of sophomores and freshmen.

“We have a really talented group of sophomores that got a lot of playing time last year as freshmen,” Kerr said. “They are going to have to step up and be leaders.”

Among those is sophomore Sean Davis, one of five returning starters. In an injury plagued season, Davis started in 10 games at the center midfield position.

“He has come on strong,” Kerr said. “He is understanding his role and continues to grow day by day. He is going to be really important for our midfield.”

Notre Dame posted a stronger preseason performance with a 3-0-1 record, recording seven goals. One of the Fighting Irish attackers, Ryan Finley will be a familiar face to the Blue Devils. The senior left Duke after his sophomore year following a suspension from the team. Finley led the Blue Devils in goals during both of his years on the team and was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2010 after leading the nation in goals.

Even though the team has thought about playing their former teammate, their focus remains on winning the match, Ibeagha said.

Duke was unable to get the results it wanted in its two preseason games, but the Blue Devils are confident they can make the necessary adjustments, Kerr added.

“We have been working a lot on our shape in terms of playing together,” he said. “We want to progress. We know it’s not going to be perfect the first couple weeks of the season.”

Last year Duke started its regular season 1-4 before going unbeaten in their next seven matches and finishing the year 11-8-3.

“We are trying to recognize that from last year and go into this year wanting to be more cohesive at the beginning of the season,” Kerr said.

With Belshaw recently being named second-team All-America by College Soccer News, the team is not worried about protecting the net. But Duke will need the right improvements on the offensive end to begin this season on the right foot.

“There is still a ways to go,” Kerr said. “But I like the way we are going. I think going into the game Saturday night we will definitely be prepared.”

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