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Duke men's soccer eyes fast start against Holy Cross

<p>Defender Tyler Hilliard and the Blue Devils will host Holy Cross Tuesday looking to reverse their recent habit of falling behind in the early going.</p>

Defender Tyler Hilliard and the Blue Devils will host Holy Cross Tuesday looking to reverse their recent habit of falling behind in the early going.

The Blue Devils are tired of playing from behind. Stepping outside ACC play for the first time since picking up its first win in six tries last week, the level of urgency to start fast is now reaching its peak.

Looking to improve its record to avoid being left out of postseason action, Duke takes on Holy Cross at Koskinen Stadium Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Blue Devils have won just one of their last eight matches and remain winless in conference action, so a victory against the Crusaders can be the morale-booster they need before facing their last three conference contests—which include two on the familiar turf of their home field.

“We know that we can score goals but we want to score first and get on the front foot early,” Duke head coach John Kerr said. “Starting games, in the past six or seven games, hasn’t been our greatest asset. So we need to start our games as if we were one goal down and we’re hungry and we can execute in the final third. If we can get one or two goals early, our confidence will grow and we’ll really show what we can do.”

Duke (5-5-2) enters Tuesday’s contest with 23 goals in its pocket and averaging 15.0 shots per game. Despite losing 3-2 in overtime against No. 7 Notre Dame Saturday, two of the usual Blue Devil suspects found the back of the net. Sophomore midfielder Brian White trimmed the Fighting Irish’s lead to 2-1 and junior attacker Brody Huitema found the equalizer with a free kick.

The duo has combined for seven goals this season and has weapons alongside in sophomore forward Jeremy Ebobisse—the team’s top-scorer with five goals—and senior midfielder Zach Mathers, who has delivered four goals and three assists.

“We need a big win,” White said. “We want to send a message that we’re going to make a big statement at the end of the season and we’re going to come out, score many goals and not allow any in. We’re not looking past Holy Cross. We know they’re coming to give their best effort so we’re just trying to get going offensively and defensively and come out ready to play.”

Duke has allowed 23 goals against this season, 11 of which have come in nonconference action. Graduate student Mitch Kupstas was the starting goalkeeper in the Blue Devils' 3-2 overtime victory against Hofstra Oct. 5 and the loss against the Fighting Irish. The Suwanee, Ga., native has conceded six goals and collected five saves in three games. Graduate student Wilson Fisher—who has spent most of the season between the pipes, totaling 28 saves in 10 games—is another option for Kerr Tuesday.

“We feel that we should avoid easy goals like the ones [we] against Notre Dame,” sophomore defender Markus Fjørtoft said. “It’s frustrating. We’re letting in so many goals at the moment and it’s about being concentrated enough. Soccer is so brutal that even the slightest lapse in concentration will punish you. You’ve got to be focused especially in the defensive third because you can be easily punished.”

Kerr said that the Blue Devils have to improve their communication defensively during the last stretch of the season. The game against the Crusaders (3-4-4) will provide the Blue Devils with a good chance to continue working on those skills before hosting N.C. State Friday.

“If you can communicate early, you can get in position early," Kerr said. "Sometimes, we’re a little bit disjointed and our spacing is not correct. It’s not a big adjustment. It’s a small adjustment but it needs to be done quickly. And it’s a lot easier [to do] if you communicate early. We know that we’re giving too many easy goals away and we’re always chasing the game."

Holy Cross has scored 12 goals and allowed just eight this year. The Blue Devil defense will have to pay special attention to junior Joey DeVivo and sophomore Yuji Callahan, who have combined for six goals and five assists. Goalkeeper Kevin Wright has made 34 saves and will look to turn away the goal attempts from Ebobisse, Mathers, Huitema and White.

“Getting a win [against Holy Cross] would be huge. We need it for our confidence,” Kerr said. “We’ve been playing well in a lot of games and losing by the odd goal, which is frustrating and disappointing. But the effort is there. We’ve just got to tighten up a little bit defensively. We’ve got to be harder to beat. And we’ve got to finish our chances because we create a lot.”

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