After losing six starters from a team that advanced to the semifinal round of both the ACC tournament and NCAA tournament last season, it would be easy to write off Duke's 2016 season as a rebuilding year. Posting a roster that includes 12 freshmen and many players who have not seen substantial playing time in their college career, the team is certainly young.
Yet, the legacy of Duke lacrosse is not lost on this year’s team. Blue Devil squads have made 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances and claimed four ACC regular season championships, led by 55 All-America selections and 59 All-ACC honorees. In October, the current team got the chance to rub elbows with former players at the 20th year anniversary celebration of the program.
“That was one of the most special weekends that I’ve ever experienced [in] being here for 20 years,” Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “I think our current players will tell you that sitting in that room that night… made them feel that they were a small part of something bigger. I think the focus of this year’s team is that they want to continue on the legacy and hard work that all the former players have left here.”
Still fresh in the minds of the Blue Devils are the lessons they learned from the senior class that led them throughout the 2015 season. The eight-member class included two-time All-American Kerrin Maurer, who finished her career as the program’s all-time record-holder with 119 assists and ranked second with 280 points. Seventy percent of the team’s 2015 goals were scored by seniors, leaving a large offensive void for the current squad to fill.
But the graduated Blue Devils will not be missed only for their contributions on the field.
“Last year’s seniors were absolutely phenomenal and led us as far as we got last year…[because of] their drive, their investment, their love for the game and their love for this program,” senior captain Claire Scarrone said. “I think our senior class and then the junior class this year looking up to the legacy they left and doing our best to emulate their leadership will really help us this year.”
With the ultimate goal of returning to the season's final weekend in mind and a roster full of fresh faces, Kimel focused on lacrosse basics with her team during fall practices. The team relearned fundamentals like stick handling and went through defensive and offensive concepts often overlooked in high school programs.
“We’ve all been freshmen and we know what it feels like. [So we’re] taking them under our wing and pushing them and teaching them and having them progress with us as a unit,” senior attacker Kelci Smesko said. “I think that having a fresh roster and knowing that a lot of teams might not have seen the girls we have out there is exciting for us.”
Kimel expects freshmen Ellie Majure, Olivia Jenner and Michelle Staggers to pose an immediate threat to the competition. Majure—a two-time Under Armour Underclass All-American—recorded 268 goals in her high school career and could be a crucial addition to the Blue Devil attack. Jenner—an addition to the Duke midfield and also an Under Armour All-American—was the team captain of the nation's top-ranked high school program in Annapolis, Md. As a senior, Staggers led her squad to the state semifinals and was a two-time All-State first team honoree in Virginia.
“[Majure, Jenner and Staggers] have been playing really well and are fearless as freshmen—which is something that we need right now—so it [has] been great,” Scarrone said.
The Blue Devils also return seven starters who were instrumental to the success of last year’s team. All-ACC goalkeeper Kelsey Duryea ranked 11th nationally in save percentage last season, bolstered by a defensive unit—led by Scarrone—that allowed only 8.0 goals per game. Sophomore Kyra Harney will look to build upon a breakout rookie season in which she recorded 31 goals—including three game-winning shots—and 15 assists. Smesko will also return to the active roster after missing the 2015 campaign due to injury.
“I can’t even put into words how excited I am,” Smesko said. “Obviously last year was tough, but I learned a lot from it. I’m a very big believer that everything happens for a reason, so I’m back 100 percent and ready to go.”
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Duke will host William & Mary and Coastal Carolina Saturday for exhibition games at noon and 1:15 p.m. respectively. The Tribe squad includes preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association team honoree defender Abby Junior and will be a good first test for the Blue Devils as they ready themselves to face off against Campbell and Northwestern the following week to begin the regular season.
“Since we did lose so many seniors, we’re viewed as underdogs in some eyes,” Smesko said. “I think that puts a really big fire underneath us.”