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Loaded field descends on Durham for Duke Nike Classic

<p>Sophomore goalkeeper E.J. Proctor was named ACC Defensive Player of the Week after a stalwart performance at Penn State Aug. 28.</p>

Sophomore goalkeeper E.J. Proctor was named ACC Defensive Player of the Week after a stalwart performance at Penn State Aug. 28.

With three ranked teams set to square off at Koskinen Stadium this weekend, the Duke Nike Classic promises top competition between ACC and Pac-12 opponents, match-ups that usually do not occur until the NCAA tournament.

No. 18 Duke will face No. 15 Southern California Friday at 7:30 p.m., following a 5 p.m. game between No. 4 North Carolina and California, a team that received 59 votes in this week’s Coaches’ Poll. The tournament will continue Sunday with the Tar Heels squaring off with the Trojans at 11:00 a.m. and the Blue Devils playing the Golden Bears at 1:30 p.m.

“The center of the women’s soccer world will be looking this week at Durham,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said.

Duke (3-0-1) will enter the Classic rested after posting shutouts in each of its two games this past weekend. Friday’s game at No. 7 Penn State ended in a draw with both teams failing to score, but the Blue Devils were able to ignite offensively in Sunday’s home opener against William & Mary, taking a 27-4 shooting advantage and winning 2-0 behind goals by Taylor Racioppi and Toni Payne.

Church said he appreciates the difficulty of the early season schedule in readying his team for the challenges of the upcoming ACC schedule. The Blue Devils’ first ACC foe will be defending national champion Florida State.

“We love playing big-time games,” Church said. “Both of these teams will show us what do we do well and they’ll show us what we really need to work on as we move forward.”

Duke found success Sunday by way of the defensive motto it has employed this season: “everybody defends.” From practice repetitions to game play, Church has instilled a strong defensive mindset. Rather than defensive efforts coming solely from the back—the designated defensive players—the Blue Devils expect great defense from everyone on the field, starting with the forwards.

Sophomore goalkeeper E.J. Proctor was named ACC Defensive Player of the Week, posting double-digit saves for the first time in her career against Penn State. With Proctor and redshirt freshman Abby Pyne between the pipes through the first four games, Duke has yet to allow a goal.

“[E.J. has] got a nice little swagger about her out there too, which I think is really important for a goalkeeper,” Church said. “She is doing some of the things that were weaknesses I would say last year, but have become strengths this year.... We’re very happy where E.J. is right now.”

Offensively, well-timed goals were crucial in Sunday’s win and Duke will look to score early in both games this weekend to avoid late-game panic. Senior captain Kara Wilson noted that because higher-ranked opponents are less likely to allow a high volume of shots, the Blue Devils will have to capitalize on the looks they get.

“It’s super important to come out of the gate and make a statement that you want to put the other team on their heels,” junior captain Christina Gibbons said. “[You need to] really show them that you’re here to attack and not just sit back and defend the whole game.”

Duke is well poised to execute such an attack with the return of Cassie Pecht and the addition of freshmen Racioppi and Kayla McCoy. With depth on the front half, the Blue Devils create difficult match ups for their opponents who are unable to focus defensive efforts on only one player. Church has said he believes the Blue Devils have not had as many players with the skill to compete for a starting role since 2011, when his squad advanced to the NCAA championship game.

With talent up and down the roster comes a battle for starting spots among position groups.

“I think that this Duke team has had more depth than any of the ones I’ve been on in the past,” Wilson said. “Everyone who’s in a starting position has to worry about someone else taking the position. I think that’s great because it doesn’t allow anyone to be complacent and everyone will have to work hard throughout the whole season.”

The Blue Devil lineup may be missing sophomore Imani Dorsey during the weekend’s classic. The Elkridge, Md., native did not assume her usual starting role in the game against William & Mary Sunday due to a hamstring injury, and the coaching staff may delay the forward’s return to game action to ensure the injury fully heals.

The Trojans (2-1) have scored three goals so far this season, all from different players. Junior Morgan Andrews is not one of them, but has accounted for 12 of her team’s 34 shots through three games. California junior Arielle Ship leads the Golden Bears (2-1) with three goals, all of which came in her team’s 5-1 win against Hawaii.

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