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'This is our year': Duke field hockey hopes to end 5-game losing streak against North Carolina Sunday

Senior forward Heather Morris and her classmates have beaten North Carolina once since they arrived in Durham in fall 2013—a memorable upset when they were freshmen. 

The then-No. 13 Blue Devils stunned the then-No. 1 and undefeated Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in late September 3-2 after overcoming a 2-0 deficit and winning a 5-4 shootout.

But since that win, North Carolina has won its last five matchups against Morris and company, including a pair of NCAA tournament victories the past two seasons. The Tar Heels’ dominance against Duke goes back for years, with the Blue Devils’ 2013 victory their only one since 2006 and only win in the teams’ last 15 meetings.

Despite Duke’s lack of success against its Tobacco Road rivals, almost exactly three years after the 2013-14 Blue Devils knocked off North Carolina, Morris says she is as confident as she has ever been entering a game against the Tar Heels—and with good reason.

No. 2 Duke will look to extend the best start in program history when it travels to Chapel Hill Sunday to take on No. 5 North Carolina at Francis E. Henry Field at 1 p.m. Although they are still No. 2 in the polls behind Syracuse, the Blue Devils are No. 1 in the year’s first RPI rankings, with five of their eight early-season wins coming against top-20 competition. 

Duke is hoping that momentum carries into Sunday’s game, when the Blue Devils will try to snap their losing streak against their rivals.

“We all know that this is our year,” Morris said. “We’re just really excited to get at it and kind of give it our all because this year is a very special year.”

In addition to being a top-five showdown, the contest holds more intrigue because it is a nonconference game. Duke (8-0, 2-0 in the ACC) and North Carolina were both scheduled to play Albany this weekend, but because of the controversial House Bill 2, the Great Danes pulled out of the games. The result was that the Blue Devils and Tar Heels agreed to play an extra game against each other to fill the void.

Duke and North Carolina (6-2, 1-1) will meet again Oct. 22 in Durham for their conference matchup. If the two regular-season games are anything like the teams’ Aug. 20 scrimmage–a 3-2 Tar Heel win that went down to the wire—fans could be treated to some of the most dramatic contests of the year.

“We match up well, we play well, it’s always a good game. That part of it you can kind of expect,” Blue Devil head coach Pam Bustin said. “I do have confidence that [we’ve] faced some pretty challenging moments in every game that we’ve played. Hopefully we’ve learned from those.”

To Bustin’s point, four of her team’s five wins against ranked teams have been one-goal victories, with the team’s offensive weapons and goalkeeper Sammi Steele coming through in the clutch.

A sophomore in her first year as a starter, Steele was one of the question marks for a team replacing a three-time All-American between the pipes, but she has risen to the occasion and ranks sixth nationally with a .816 save percentage. 

Duke and North Carolina are two of the best offensive teams in the nation, both averaging more than three goals per game, so another strong effort from Steele could give Duke the edge.

The Tar Heels play two goalkeepers—starter Shannon Johnson and Alex Halpin—who split time almost evenly and have allowed just nine goals combined this season, though Johnson has been credited with all six wins and Halpin with both of the teams’ losses. North Carolina fell 2-1 at then-No. 18 Boston College last week and lost 1-0 at then-No. 10 Michigan in its season opener. 

Despite their two losses this season, the Tar Heels have shut down the Blue Devils in the teams’ last five meetings, holding Duke to just two goals during that span.

“Their defensive game is very fast and they almost play like forwards, or like an offense,” Morris said. “They’re very quick and very good at tackling.... Their defense is pretty structurally sound.”

Morris leads the Blue Devils with eight goals this season, but will look to set up her teammates if the Tar Heels pay too much attention to her. Six other Duke players have at least two goals this year, with freshman midfielder Margaux Paolino tied for the best mark in the nation in assists per game with 1.1.

On the other end of the field, the Blue Devils will look to shut down North Carolina senior Lauren Moyer and junior Gab Major. The forwards have combined for 10 goals and two assists and will look to spark the Tar Heels, who will host No. 1 Syracuse in an NCAA championship rematch Friday before taking on Duke. 

The Blue Devils will not play a game on a Friday for the first time in more than a month, giving them time to prepare for their third top-10 matchup of the season. Duke knocked off then-No. 4 Maryland 1-0 Sept. 2 and upended then-No. 6 Louisville 3-2 Sept. 16. 

“I’m so confident in our team and our energy and all that,” Morris said. “We’re going to give them a really tough game. It’s always going to be close but we’re going to give it our all.”

Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting. 

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