Play with fire and you are bound to get burned—it’s wise advice for the curious Cub Scout, but a prophecy the Blue Devils hope will not ring true when they take on the Flames this weekend.
One week after dropping a heartbreaker against top-ranked Syracuse, No. 4 Duke will have a shot at redemption Saturday when it faces No. 10 Liberty in the final game of the regular season. The Blue Devils will head to Lynchburg, Va., for a 1 p.m. match against the Flames that pits redshirt senior goalkeeper Lauren Blazing and the Duke defense against the third-best scoring offense in the country.
"I thought we played a great game [against Syracuse]," Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “The result was unfortunate, but it’s shown us that we can play at that level, and we want to sustain that level now until the very end. So, we’ll bring that to Liberty and expect that they’ll bring it back."
The first challenge Duke (11-5) will face against the Flames (11-4) will be finding a way to contain their dynamic offensive weapons.
Liberty boasts the seventh-most prolific scorer in the country in senior Natalie Barr. The Lurgan, Northern Ireland, native paces the Flames’ offense with .93 goals per game average, having registered 14 goals and 31 points on the year.
But when it comes to Liberty’s scoring arsenal, Barr is just the beginning.
Senior Ashlee Krulock is just as dangerous when given the chance. The Hummelstown, Pa., native’s laser-beam accuracy has powered in 11 goals so far this season, including three game-winners. A forward/midfield hybrid, Krulock is as dangerous in the open field setting up a teammate as she is in the circle winding up a shot.
Juniors Serena Barr and Bethany Barr support their seniors with a blend of shooting and ball handling. Talented scorers themselves, but never afraid to make the extra pass, the pair averages a combined 1.1 goals and 1.0 assists per game to further its team’s offensive dominance.
"They are a relentless attacking team, and that is great for us," Bustin said. “They have some great corner options...they have some very skilled players up front. For us defensively, it will be a good matchup and a good challenge as we head into the ACC tournament."
The Blue Devils will look to Blazing between the pipes to give them the added edge in the contest. Last week, the Durham native made 12 saves against one of the top-rated offenses in the country, shutting out the Orange through regulation for the first time this year. Saturday, Blazing's task will be no different.
Last season, Duke hung on to defeat the Flames 3-2 at Jack Katz Stadium for its 10th victory of the season after seeing a two-goal lead vanish midway through the second half.
With the threat of sudden-death overtime looming, then-freshman Alexa Mackintire made a play that would turn her into the hero of the day. With 23 seconds remaining, the Southborough, Mass., native found the ball during a scramble in front of the Liberty net and hammered home a shot that sealed the victory for her team.
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This season, Mackintire has already tallied three scores—including a game-ending overtime goal against James Madison two weeks ago.
Now, with the season finale looming on the horizon, the surging sophomore says she is confident in her team’s ability to thrive under the pressure of another tough game.
“It comes down to how excited you get as a team when it’s that close of a game,” Mackintire said. “Last year at Liberty and the game at [James Madison]…my shot wasn’t anything great. It’s just putting it on the cage and hoping someone gets a touch on it or it bounces wrong. It’s those [moments] that count when it’s sudden death.”
This year is only the Flames’ fifth season, but the young program has enjoyed a remarkable amount of success during its short history. Head coach Jodi Murphy got the program off the ground in 2010 and has since guided Liberty to a 64-34 ledger and two straight NCAA tournament appearances.
The Flames’ rise has not gone unnoticed by the college field hockey world, as evidenced by the their top-ten status and the respect they have garnered from coaches across the country.
"Their passion to play is awesome," Bustin said. "Liberty is a great school and it’s attracting some great athletes. Jodi has done a great job with that program, she was a great player herself and obviously a great coach."
Jack Dolgin contributed reporting.