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Showdown with unbeaten No. 1 Syracuse looms for Duke field hockey

<p>Junior Heather Morris and the Blue Devils will look to deal Syracuse its first loss of the season Saturday in their final regular-season ACC contest.</p>

Junior Heather Morris and the Blue Devils will look to deal Syracuse its first loss of the season Saturday in their final regular-season ACC contest.

The Blue Devils will have a chance to do what the Duke men’s basketball team could not accomplish in 2014—knock off an unbeaten, top-ranked Syracuse squad.

The No. 4 Blue Devils will welcome No. 1 Syracuse to Jack Katz Stadium Saturday at 1 p.m. for their final home game of the season. It’s a game predestined for greatness: Duke head coach Pam Bustin’s aggressive defense pitted against an Orange offense that averages 4.2 goals per game.

But it’s also much more than that.

“As far as performance and approach are considered, [Saturday] is just another game,” Bustin said. “But, as far as what the outcome could be? It’s a great opportunity for Duke field hockey. You’ve got the number one team coming in to play you at home in your match. It’s very exciting.”

The game will have major implications in defining the storylines of each team’s season.

Syracuse (15-0, 5-0 in the ACC) stands at the precipice of perfection. One game away from completing the first undefeated season in program history, the Orange will have eyes from around the field hockey world firmly fixed upon them as they prepare for the Blue Devils. Managing the magnitude of the moment will be key for the Syracuse players if they hope to survive the trip to Durham unscathed.

On the other end of the field, the upset-minded Blue Devils (11-4, 2-3) have their minds set on rallying as a team to capture the win on Senior Day. For five players—Aileen Johnson, Amanda Kim, Hannah Barreca, Lauren Blazing and Sarah Urdahl—Saturday’s contest will be a last hurrah in front of the home crowd. But before they can take their curtain call, they must guide their team through one last test—a test their teammates believe they are prepared to pass.

“We aren’t looking for a tie,” junior Heather Morris said. “We aren’t looking to go into overtime. We believe that we can win and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Duke will need to find a way to slow down the Orange’s high-powered offense, though, if it intends to pull off the upset. Syracuse boasts the third-best scoring offense in the country. The group is paced by redshirt freshman Roos Weers, who leads her team with 13 goals and 33 points.

The Orange are especially skilled at earning penalty corners. Syracuse attackers have drawn 104 corners while only conceding 44 to opponents. By comparison, the Blue Devils hold a slim 77-72 edge in penalty corners earned. If the Orange are able to force the Duke defense into ceding penalty corners and capitalize on those opportunities, the Blue Devils will find themselves at a serious disadvantage.

Although Syracuse edges Duke in most stats in the box score, the Blue Devils are confident they can deal the Orange their first loss of the year, provided that they set the tempo early.

“The core focus is just playing Duke hockey,” Morris said. “That means coming out with a lot of energy from the start. From the first whistle, we are going to attack them, whether it is attacking them from defense or attacking them on the attack.”

Perhaps the Blue Devils’ greatest advantage against the Orange is their experience against highly ranked teams this year. Duke owns a 4-3 record against top-10 teams and a 1-2 ledger against teams ranked fifth in the nation or higher. According to the NCAA, Bustin’s squad has played the toughest schedule in the country this year.

The Blue Devils are battle-tested and have proven that they can go toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the nation. Syracuse’s strength of schedule is commendable—ranking eighth toughest in the nation—but not nearly as impressive as Duke’s top spot.

Add to that the fact that the Orange are still clinging to a perfect record and the distraction that can cause.

“The weakest thing about a team that is undefeated is exactly that—they haven’t played a team yet that could beat them,” Morris said. “A couple teams have given [Syracuse] a pretty good run, but they haven’t played Duke field hockey this year. They haven’t played our team.”

With the stakes raised for each team, Saturday’s matchup promises an epic battle between two of the biggest heavyweights in the ACC. A win would move the Blue Devils back to .500 in conference play and put themselves in better position for the ACC tournament, which runs Nov. 5-8 in Charlottesville, Va.

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