When Virginia and Duke take the field, the two perennial powers are generally battling in high-stakes games for tournament crowns.
But the two struggling squads will battle Sunday just to make the ACC tournament.
No. 16 Duke travels to Charlottesville, Va., to take on Virginia at noon at Klöckner Stadium. Although both teams have endured disappointing seasons, the matchup between the teams will have a lot on the line with the loser missing out on next week's ACC tournament to play a consolation game against No. 4 Brown and a long shot to make the NCAA tournament.
“We’re just excited for another ACC game against Virginia,” senior attackman Case Matheis said. “It’s a great rivalry that we’ve always had against them and whenever you play an ACC team you know it’s going to be an athletic game but most importantly, it’s another chance for us to get an ACC win.”
In an uncharacteristically poor year for all of the ACC—outside of top-ranked Notre Dame—the Blue Devils and Cavaliers have battled their respective problems and are simply fighting to stay above .500.
Duke (7-6, 1-2 in the ACC) comes into Sunday’s game on the heels of a pair of close losses to then-No. 17 North Carolina and the Fighting Irish. The Blue Devils appeared to be turning the corner after an overtime victory against then-No. 5 Syracuse March 26 but could not knock off the top two teams in the conference despite holding a late lead in each game.
In addition to playing the nation’s most difficult schedule according to Inside Lacrosse this season, the Blue Devils have been done in by late game struggles. Duke is just 1-5 in games decided by two or fewer goals, and for the first time in head coach John Danowski’s tenure in Durham, the Blue Devils are not a lock to make the NCAA tournament.
On the other side of the field, Virginia (6-6, 0-3) has had an equally puzzling season, including numerous nonconference losses in which the Cavaliers were barely competitive. Head coach Dom Starsia—the active NCAA wins leader—has received inconsistent play from his squad—Virginia suffered narrow losses to Notre Dame and Syracuse, but blowout defeats at the hands of North Carolina and Loyola. Virginia last missed the NCAA tournament in 2013, two years removed from a national championship in 2011, but it may be too little too late to rebound from a poor start to the year.
“It’s going to be a close game,” Matheis said. “The very slimmest of margins for who is going to win. It comes down to ground balls, faceoffs, man-up and man-down, and in a game like this, it’s those little elements of victory that separate one team from another.”
The urgency to end the ACC slate with a win will only increase for a Blue Devil team that braces to lose its entire starting midfield line as well as Matheis. Between seniors Deemer Class, Chad Cohan and Myles Jones, Duke is set to graduate 81 of the team’s 180 goals this season. After being tabbed as the No. 3 team in the country to start the year and sporting one of the most decorated senior classes in program history, the Blue Devils have not lived up to lofty expectations.
Duke's group of seniors began their careers with back-to-back national titles, but now sit on the verge of missing the tournament for the first time in 10 years following last year’s first round tournament exit to Ohio State. A win against Virginia is crucial to preventing that from becoming a reality.
“Our backs are up against the wall here, no doubt about it,” Matheis said. “I talked to Deemer [Class] on Sunday and we’re just taking the approach to have as much fun as we can these next few weeks because you don’t know when it’s going to come to an end. You want to look back on these four years, especially these last weeks, and know that not only did you give 100 percent but you had a blast doing it with your best friends.”
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