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Duke field hockey heads north to face the defending national champions

After two balanced wins against Indiana and No. 17 Drexel last weekend, Duke will take to the road for the first time this season, heading up the New Jersey Turnpike to face the defending national champions.

The Blue Devils will take on No. 3 Princeton at Bedford Field Friday at 6 p.m. before squaring off with Rutgers at the Bauer Track and Field Complex Sunday at 1 p.m.

“It’s not every day you get to play the defending national champions,” junior forward Jessica Buttinger said. “Princeton is not the same team they were last year, and neither are we. I think it’s just a great opportunity to showcase how hard we’ve been working for the past year.”

Last season, the Tigers beat then-No. 1 North Carolina 3-2 to clinch their program’s first ever national championship. This season, however, Princeton is without two of its biggest offensive threats in forward Kathleen Sharkey and midfielder Katie Reinprecht.

Sharkey, Princeton’s all-time leading scorer, led the 2012 squad in points, goals and shots, and Reinprecht, a member of the United States Olympic team, led in assists with 19.

In their season-opener against Duke, the Tigers hope to make up for their losses with junior Allison Evans and Katie Reinprecht’s younger sister, senior Julia. Evans was second in goals last season after Sharkey, and Julia followed her sister in the assists category with 14.

“Princeton is always going to be a strong team,” Buttinger said. “They’ve lost some players, but I’m sure they’ve picked up good players as well.”

The Blue Devils’ defense must continue its streak of solid defensive play to stop Princeton’s offense. Led by redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Lauren Blazing and senior back Paula Heimbach, the defensive unit only surrendered one goal over both of Duke’s games last weekend. Blazing notched her second-career shutout against the Hoosiers, making five saves.

“I feel like our whole defensive unit is such a force,” Buttinger said. “When I am practicing against our defenders, it’s always such a challenge because we have some of the best girls out there.”

Princeton didn’t become national champions with a one-dimensional game. Sophomore Teresa Benvenuti was the rock of the Tigers’ defense, starting every game on her way to being named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Benvenuti and her unit played in front of goalkeeper Christina Maida, who led the Ivy League with a 1.17 goals against average.

After their matchup with Princeton, the Blue Devils will travel to Piscataway, N.J., to face a Rutgers (1-1) team with a less stable defensive situation, specifically at the goalkeeper position. Senior Sarah Stuby started every games for the Scarlet Knights in 2012, but, after accumulating a 2.21 goals against average, freshman Shevaun Hayes started the season opener. Stuby started the Scarlet Knights’ second game, but, with each goalkeeper relinquishing only two goals apiece, it is unclear who Duke will see Sunday.

The uncertainty surrounding the defense, however, gives the Blue Devils’ offense a chance to continue to shine. After scoring eight goals in their first two contests, a number of offensive leaders have emerged. Senior Emmie Le Marchand tallied two goals against Indiana, and freshman Heather Morris notched a hat trick in only her second collegiate game. Graduate student Cherry Seaborn also added one goal in each contest.

After getting off to a 2-0 start for just the second time since 2008, the Blue Devils are viewing this weekend’s slate of games as an opportunity to make a statement by taking down a formidable foe on its home turf.

“It would be a tremendous statement for us, but one that we’re completely capable of,” Buttinger said. “We’re such a completely changed team in the sense that everyone has worked so hard to up their level of play. You feel the difference in the practices, and this is our opportunity to show the rest of the field hockey community.”

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