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Red-hot Duke field hockey squad to open ACC play against No. 11 Virginia

<p>Alexa Mackintire set up Duke's only goal in its win against then-No. 4 Maryland last week.&nbsp;</p>

Alexa Mackintire set up Duke's only goal in its win against then-No. 4 Maryland last week. 

Tasked with jelling as a young team and playing stiff competition, Duke has rattled off three straight wins against top-20 opponents and climbed to No. 2 in the latest polls.

But the gauntlet does not stop there.

The Blue Devils will be put to the test once again this weekend with games against No. 11 Virginia Friday at 6 p.m. and James Madison Sunday at 1 p.m. at Jack Katz Stadium. Duke has held its last three opponents—then-No. 13 Liberty, then-No. 6 Maryland and then-No. 16 Northwestern—to only three goals combined and will return home after a pair of victories in the Big Ten/ACC Cup in Lancaster, Pa.

Sophomore goalkeeper Sammi Steele and junior defender Alyssa Chillano have led the way defensively, with the former tallying 16 saves in her past two games after taking over between the pipes following All-American Lauren Blazing’s graduation. 

“Having Sammi [Steele] back there gives us a little confidence to be able to step up and make plays higher up the field, which is then easier to transition to the offense,” Chillano said. 

Chillano was named ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Week after scoring two goals—including the game-winner in overtime—against the Wildcats, tying forward Heather Morris for the team lead. Despite playing as a defender, the Phoenixville, Pa., native has come through when the Blue Devils (4-0) have needed her the most and leads the team with three game-winning goals already this year. 

“It’s pretty cool to say that I’ve had some game-winning goals, but it’s really a team effort. I wouldn’t be able to get those goals without the team getting a corner or the push off being on point,” Chillano said. 

Offensively, a pair of newcomers have been big contributors to Duke’s fast start this season. 

Graduate student Aisling Naughton and freshman Margaux Paolino—who have combined for 11 points—have teamed up with Morris to pace a Blue Devil offense that is averaging four goals per game. The duo had one of its strongest performances of the year Sunday against Northwestern, with a pair of assists and seven shot attempts. 

Duke might not have as many scoring chances Friday against a dangerous Virginia squad, though. Despite a sluggish offensive start to the season, the Cavaliers (2-2) will provide another stiff test for the Duke defense. 

Since putting up five goals against Miami (Ohio) in its season opener, Virginia has been shut out twice in its last three games but has controlled the pace of play during the last two, outshooting its opponents 48-15. Where the Cavaliers need to improve is with their accuracy—so far this year they have only connected on 9.3 percent of their attempts, nearly 10 percent worse than their mark in 2015. 

Regardless of its offensive output, Virginia still has veteran goalkeeper Rebecca Holden in the crease. The senior leads the ACC with 22 saves early in the 2016 season and is allowing fewer than two goals per contest. Holden also gave the Blue Devils trouble a season ago, surrendering just five goals in combination with Carrera Lucas in three contests between the two ACC rivals.

“Every conference game is important, and every conference game is a battle,” Duke head coach Pam Bustin said. “For us to open up at home is exciting, and to do it against a quality team in UVA is even better.”

After playing Friday night, the Blue Devils have a typical quick turnaround with a game against James Madison (3-1) Sunday. Despite being unranked to start the season, the Dukes  managed to best Liberty in their season opener behind a strong performance from goalkeeper Sara Kraeutler. 

Unlike the Cavaliers, James Madison has found the back of the net with better consistency to start the season. Five players have tallied at least four points this season, with sophomore Miranda Rigg and junior Hannah Hall leading the team with eight points apiece.

“We’re getting more familiar with our roles and becoming more confident as a defensive unit and that’s a big part of it with some good goalkeeping, and that takes some of the pressure of the attacks,” Bustin said. “Hopefully, it clicks this weekend where there’s a good balance between our defensive strength and our attacking power.”

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