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Replacing Blazing: New Duke field hockey goalkeepers look to make mark

<p>Senior forward Heather Morris has stepped into a leadership role after the departure of  three-time All-American goalkeeper Lauren Blazing.</p>

Senior forward Heather Morris has stepped into a leadership role after the departure of three-time All-American goalkeeper Lauren Blazing.

After missing the NCAA tournament in two of head coach Pam Bustin’s first three seasons, the Blue Devils have been one of the top teams in the country recently, making two Final Fours in the past three years.

But now No. 4 Duke must replace its anchor for its most recent Final Four appearances—the fifth and sixth in program history—three-time All-American goalkeeper Lauren Blazing. Blazing ranked among the nation’s best in save percentage when the team reached the national title game in 2013 and finished third in program history in saves.

The Blue Devils—having won their first two games of 2016 by a combined score of 12-4 with sophomore Sammi Steele and senior Kelsey Wagner between the pipes—are hoping the foundation Blazing left behind can help less experienced players pick up where the Durham native left off.

“She’s been here five years, and she [gave] the team a level of maturity that, in the backfield, that was irreplaceable, honestly. It takes time to build that,” Bustin said. “[But] there was a time when Lauren was a freshman, and there was a time when she was gaining her experience through the NCAA, so we’re just back to that.”

Although the loudest voice on the team may have graduated, Bustin returns starting defenders Alyssa Chillano and Sarah Furey. Chillano tied for the ACC lead in defensive saves last season, and junior Stephanie Pezzuti and senior Savannah Story will help replace veteran starters Hannah Barreca and Amanda Kim.

Even with experience in front of the net, the Blue Devils will need a strong year from Steele and Wagner to get back to Norfolk, Va., and the Final Four. The duo will have to develop chemistry with their teammates quickly to direct the back line in front of them.

“The voice comes from the back, regardless,” Bustin said. “The goalkeepers are pretty vocal which is good, but now with the experience that’s in front of both of them, again, Lauren had that four years ago, three years ago—it’s an evolution.”

With Blazing gone, Bustin’s team also has a new leader—senior forward Heather Morris. Duke’s leading scorer last season, Morris worked with junior Ashley Kristen, graduate student Aisling Naughton and freshman Margaux Paolino to overwhelm William and Mary and No. 13 Liberty last weekend. The Blue Devil offense was firing on all cylinders, taking advantage of penalty corner opportunities to erupt for the 12 goals against the two teams. Lauren Blazing’s younger sister Robin will also be a big part of the offense coming back as a starting forward.

And as they gets more comfortable with their new goalkeepers and back line starters, the Blue Devils could become even more dangerous.

“It is very different because I have played with Lauren for a long time. She took a fifth year, so I overlapped three years with her, some people did four but three is a lot,” Morris said. “It’s weird not having her back there, but our goalies are strong and they’re really improving and really starting to step up into her position.”

Newcomers like Paolino and Naughton give Duke depth it has lacked up front in recent years, but the contributions of newcomers this season might not be limited to players.

Bustin also brought in assistant coaches Valerie Dahmen and Wesley Drew. Dahmen was Wake Forest’s goalkeeper from 2013 to 2015 and averaged 5.4 saves per game as a senior, good enough for second in the ACC. Her experience could help guide Steele and Wagner through a difficult ACC slate that features contests against No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Virginia.  

And despite losing a face of their program, the Blue Devils know that having a different team dynamic this season doesn’t mean that their goal of capturing the program’s first national championship is out of reach. 

“We have our core values, and that kind of sets the tone for who we are as a team,” Bustin said. “Of course personalities matter, but it’s a very inclusive team and everybody really opens up for the good of the team, and that’s something that hasn’t changed.”

Delaney King and Sameer Pandhare contributed reporting.

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