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Duke field hockey seeks payback against North Carolina

<p>Senior Aileen Johnson will play her sister, Shannon, Friday in Chapel Hill as Duke looks to avenge three losses to North Carolina last season.</p>

Senior Aileen Johnson will play her sister, Shannon, Friday in Chapel Hill as Duke looks to avenge three losses to North Carolina last season.

The last time the Blue Devils faced their biggest rival, North Carolina ended Duke’s season in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils can avenge that loss when they travel to Chapel Hill this weekend.

Friday’s match at Henry Stadium at 6 p.m. pits No. 4 Duke against the No. 3 Tar Heels in one of the most important games of the year for both teams. The Blue Devils have a lot of momentum with a six-game winning streak, but North Carolina is also on a roll with seven wins in a row. The pride that accompanies any win in this rivalry will be magnified for the team that can extend its streak Friday.

“It’s a conference matchup, and obviously it’s Carolina so I think the motivation factor is there—it’s automatic,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “Last year…there were some unfortunate losses there that I thought we played some really good hockey, but it’s a new year [with] two different teams and it’s always an exciting game.”

Duke (10-3, 2-2 in the ACC) lost to the Tar Heels three times last year, including the 3-0 NCAA tournament defeat and a controversial 2-1 overtime loss in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. After a collision in the circle during the overtime period, North Carolina was awarded a penalty stroke that was upheld after a video review, and the Tar Heels (11-1, 3-1) capitalized to score the go-ahead goal. The Blue Devils also dropped the regular season matchup in Durham 1-0.

The familiarity between these two teams extends beyond this game experience. Duke midfielder Aileen Johnson’s sister—Shannon Johnson—is the North Carolina goalkeeper, and Blue Devil midfielder Alyssa Chillano’s cousin—Gab Major—is a sophomore forward for the Tar Heels. Players on both teams have also played together on clubs in high school and during the offseason.

“You do know the opponent a little bit better than you know some other opponents, whether it’s through the U.S. system, through the clubs, through families or just how close we are regionally here,” Bustin said. “They do a lot of U.S. training here, so it just makes it for a really good game.”

Duke enters Friday’s game with a defense that has been dominant during its winning streak. Bustin’s squad has shut out three of its last four opponents, and it boasts the last two ACC Defensive Players of the Week—Chillano and redshirt senior goalkeeper Lauren Blazing, who made 11 saves last weekend and only gave up one goal to help Duke to close victories against then-No. 10 Boston College and then-No. 17 Boston University.

This defensive unit will be put to the test against North Carolina, which has one of the most explosive offenses in the nation. The Tar Heels have scored eight goals in each of their last three games and have not been held to fewer than two goals all season. Major is tied for the ACC lead in both points and goals scored, boasting 28 points and 11 goals on the season. Senior midfielder Emily Wold also ranks tied for fifth in the conference with nine goals.

“They’re skilled and experienced, so that’s a good combination to have,” Bustin said. “But…our defensive unit has been playing strong and continues to get better, so it should be a good matchup.”

Although Bustin’s squad is fourth in the national rankings, it is fifth in the league standings due to early-season losses to Wake Forest and Virginia. The only two conference matches Duke has left are against North Carolina and Syracuse—the top two teams in the ACC. A win in one or both of these games would be critical for the Blue Devils to improve their potential seeding as postseason play looms.

After Friday’s match, Duke will travel to Harrisonburg, Va., to play No. 18 James Madison Sunday at 1 p.m. The Dukes (11-3) have won five in a row and are unbeaten in their conference, which puts them in good position to receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Duke beat James Madison in a close 3-2 game at home last year.

“What’s important is that we take one game at a time, and we prepare for Carolina knowing that we have a game on Sunday just like every other weekend,” Bustin said. “When Carolina’s over, that’s over, and then we have to lock into taking care of the next game.”

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