On a chilly November evening in Norfolk, Va., eight members of the Duke squad took the national championship loss to Connecticut a little bit harder than the rest.
Seven seniors and one graduate student said farewell to a team that hasn't recorded a larger graduating class in the last 30 years. What remained were 13 returners hopeful for another successful season and eagerly awaiting new faces to replenish the squad.
“We carry a fairly small roster,” head coach Pam Bustin. “We’re 20-22 kids, so we’re hoping everybody’s going to pull an oar. You’re in the boat—pull an oar. Hopefully everybody at some point will make an impact this season.”
The Blue Devils need every player to make an impact—especially on the scoring end. The loss of six starters left holes in many positions on the field, but one of the largest was the void once filled by senior forward Emmie Le Marchand. The Worcester, England, native led the team in both goals and assists last season, notching more than twice as many goals as the next leader.
“Every year you find different ways of [finding] your scoring strengths—you have to find that,” Bustin said. “Some years it’s the corner unit or some years it’s just people coming out. One year I think we had five or six, we probably had five of our players in the scoring margin…. I don’t care how we do it, honestly, as long as it gets done and we’re able to put the points on the board at the end of the game.”
Even with Le Marchand, points were hard to come by last year. Duke’s offense stayed out of the top 25 offensive rankings with its average of 2.58 goals scored per game and ranked last in the ACC in scoring average. In comparison, the other three teams to reach the 2013 Final Four—Maryland, North Carolina, and Connecticut—were all in the top 11 nationally for both offensive categories.
How did the Blue Devils finish as national runners-up when they were pitted against such intimidating offenses? Although the saying “defense wins championships” wasn’t entirely true for Duke, defense won just about everything else. Not only did the Blue Devils crack the top 25 for goals against average, they also ranked sixth nationally in save percentage.
If retaining backfield experience is what Duke needs to succeed, its chances are better than expected after losing so many pieces of last year's roster.
Although the squad lost six of eleven starters, three of the five returners form the core of the Blue Devil backfield. Redshirt junior goalkeeper Lauren Blazing, junior defender Amanda Kim and junior midfielder Aileen Johnson were all named to the All-ACC Preseason team and will look to help Duke remain dominant on the defense end. The trio of experienced defenders not only provide continuity from last year to this but also serve as leaders for the incoming freshmen.
“Everybody’s been so welcoming, and I think we’ve really meshed well together,” freshman defender Alexa Mackintire said. “Because I play in the backfield, I would say definitely the goalkeepers and the other backfields are definitely [leaders] for me.”
A stalwart defense nonetheless can’t win games without an attacking presence. With the front third under the most construction from last year’s championship squad, Duke’s forwards will have to find new ways to score without Le Marchand.
“We have so many great forwards coming in, and we have a lot of good corner shooters. I just feel that we’re all going to fill the role and score as much as possible,” sophomore forward Heather Morris said. “I don’t think this year it’s going to necessarily be one key player. I think we’re all going to contribute, and we’re going to have tons of different people scoring.”
One of the most important returners for the Blue Devils never enters the field of play. Now in her fourth season as head coach, Bustin’s success in 2013 did not finish with her team’s trip to the national championship.
Bustin was named NFHCA South Region Coach of the Year and also became a member of the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame for her contributions to the sport. Beyond the X’s and O’s, Bustin attributes the Blue Devils’ championship run to a season full of hard work and belief.
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