If Duke had a choice in its schedule, it probably wouldn’t have chosen to kick off its ACC slate against North Carolina.
The No. 16 Blue Devils, who were winless in the ACC last season, begin conference play Friday against the reigning national runner-up with a trip to Chapel Hill. The No. 1 Tar Heels are second in the nation in both goals-against average and goals per game and will be one of the biggest challenges of the regular season for Duke.
“We’ve definitely done the right things leading up to the game,” Blue Devil forward Jessica Buttinger said. “We’re really taking it to each other in practice and working really hard. We’re prepared.”
But Duke (6-2) has a lot to prepare for, including junior goalkeeper Sassi Ammer, who leads the ACC with a 0.75 goals-against average. Ammer, with help from undefeated North Carolina’s veteran defensive unit, has allowed multiple goals only once this season.
The Blue Devils will counter with an offense that scored six goals against Radford Sunday, its highest single-game goal total of the season. Six different Duke players found the back of the net against the Highlanders, including freshman Heather Morris, who leads the team with six tallies.
“We’ve definitely been working on… really attacking the net and getting opportunities when we get into the circle,” Buttinger said. “We’re really going to focus on getting good shots at [Ammer] and earning corners.”
Buttinger and the Duke offense hope to carry the momentum from their last game into Chapel Hill, not thinking about Ammer’s stellar season thus far but sticking to the game plan that has the Blue Devils off to their best start since 2008.
“It’s [North Carolina], one of our biggest rivals. I mean, everyone’s aware of it,” Buttinger said. “But we’re trying not to get too caught up with who we’re playing, just because we want to play our best game against every opponent we face.”
The Tar Heel offense is also coming off a game in which it scored six goals in a shut out against Virginia Commonwealth Sunday. Sophomore midfielder Nina Notman was one of five North Carolina players to score against the Rams, adding to her team-leading six goals. Another weapon at the Tar Heels’ disposal is sophomore defender Emily Wold, whose eight assists ties for the most in the NCAA.
North Carolina will have to maneuver past Duke goalkeeper Lauren Blazing, who is eighth in the nation with a .791 save percentage. The redshirt sophomore will face the Tar Heels after notching her second shutout of the season against the Highlanders. In her first encounter with the Tar Heels during a preseason scrimmage, however, Blazing surrendered three goals.
“During the preseason we were really just figuring out how to mesh… and we’ve only gotten better as we’ve played more games,” Buttinger said. “We’ve become a stronger team.”
Duke will then return to Durham to face Longwood Sunday. The Lancers (3-5) are led by senior midfielder Stacey de Grandhomme, whose seven goals are four more than Longwood’s next-highest goal scorer. Starting goalkeeper Kaye Goulding has struggled during her senior season, as her 2.87 goals-against average is almost a full point higher than it was last season.
Despite there being more at stake for the Blue Devils in their ACC opener against a North Carolina team that is not only top three in the country, but also their Tobacco Road rivals, Duke will approach the Lancers in the same fashion they approach the Tar Heels.
“We’re definitely going to take Longwood like any other game,” Buttinger said. “It’s definitely important to come out against any team… with as much intensity as if we were playing the [top] team.”
And as Duke faces a top team Friday, North Carolina should expect an intense contest.
“We’d love to set the tone in the ACC,” Buttinger said. “We’re ready to attack them for sure.”
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