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Freshman star Paolino, Duke field hockey set for road showdown at No. 6 Louisville

<p>Sophomore goalkeeper Sammi Steele has won the first six starts of her career and will look to propel Duke to the best start&nbsp;in program history Friday.&nbsp;</p>

Sophomore goalkeeper Sammi Steele has won the first six starts of her career and will look to propel Duke to the best start in program history Friday. 

For the third straight week, the Blue Devils will face a top-15 team on a Friday. 

But this time, the stakes are a little higher.

No. 2 Duke will look to post the best start in program history Friday when it meets No. 6 Louisville at 6 p.m. at Trager Stadium in Louisville, Ky., for an ACC showdown. Both teams are 6-0, though the Blue Devils have four top-20 wins early in the season and the Cardinals have yet to face a ranked team.

Louisville has had to play four of its first six games on the road, and despite the relatively easy schedule, carries plenty of momentum into its ACC opener having outscored opponents 28-3 this season.

“They’re a solid team and have just been executing when they’ve had to. From the top to the bottom, they’re pretty strong,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “It’s going to give us a good challenge for sure.” 

The Blue Devils (6-0, 1-0 in the ACC) also enter Friday’s tilt as one of the hottest teams in the country, coming off a 7-1 rout of James Madison in which senior forward Heather Morris scored four goals in the first half. 

The Pottstown, Pa., native ranks in the top 10 nationally in goals per game, and the Blue Devils also have a number of other offensive weapons, with six players already scoring two or more goals early in the season. 

Duke’s depth will be tested against a Cardinal defense that has held opponents to a 3-for-28 conversion rate on shots this season. Goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran anchors the unit, having allowed two of those goals so far in her sophomore campaign and leading the nation in save percentage at 85.7. 

“The goalkeeper is definitely one of their strengths and a solid part of their defense,” Bustin said. “We’re just going to have to take smart shots and try to move them as much as we can to put the ball in the cage.”

With shot efficiency likely at a premium Friday, the Blue Devils will once again look to freshman star Margaux Paolino to continue setting up her teammates. One of the top high school players in the country last year, Paolino has transitioned seamlessly into Duke’s offense. The Villanova, Pa., native leads the nation with 1.3 assists per game and is the only freshman in the top 50 in that statistic.

“We just come out and try to do the same thing every time, push each other, work hard in the field, make sure we’re doing the simple things right,” Paolino said. “But nothing really changes, every opponent is the same for us.”

The Cardinals (6-0) have their own freshman star in No. 10 Minout Mink, who is tied with Morris for eighth nationally with 1.3 goals per game. The Dutch forward is one of six Louisville players also with at least two goals early this season and will provide a stiff test for Blue Devil goalkeeper Sammi Steele. In her first season between the pipes, the sophomore is ninth nationally in save percentage at 79.3 percent.

For Steele to keep that momentum going, Duke’s defense will likely need to contain Mink, who scored three goals in just six minutes played last Friday against Central Michigan. 

“We’ll absolutely have to be aware of where she is,” Bustin said. “Every time we play a conference opponent, there’s a number 10, so it’s great for us to have that experience and to challenge our defense because we’ll only become better.”

Stopping Cardinal midfielder Erin McRudden will likely also be a priority for the Blue Devils, as the senior is tied for second nationally with 1.2 assists per game and like Paolino, specializes in finding open teammates.

After its upcoming road challenge, Duke will then make the short trip to Oxford, Ohio, to take on Miami (Ohio) Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Miami Field Hockey Complex. The Redhawks (3-4) have struggled against ACC teams this season, falling 5-1 to Virginia and 2-0 to Louisville, but also have one of the top scorers in the nation in Paula Portugal. The sophomore is tied for fifth nationally with 1.4 goals per contest and has scored half of her team’s 20 goals this season, meaning the Blue Devils’ mentality will likely be similar to the one they use to contain Mink and capitalize on offensive chances Friday. 

“We just have to be alert and aware of the chances when we have them and take advantage of them,” Bustin said. “And I think that’s true on both ends, so we take care of things defensively when we need to and take care of the opportunity to score when we are presented with one.”

Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting. 


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