The Blue Devils finally got the monkey off their back with a first ACC victory their last time out, making strides toward securing a 20th consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
But Duke is not out of the woods yet.
With just three games remaining in the regular season after a 15-12 victory against then-No.14 Boston College last Saturday, the Blue Devils will need to keep their foot on the gas pedal down the stretch after an early-season slide put their postseason hopes in jeopardy.
Coming off its first conference win in nearly a calendar year, No. 20 Duke will travel to Evanston, Ill., to face No. 18 Northwestern at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Martin Stadium. After their highest scoring output against a ranked foe this season, the Blue Devils are looking to build on their last contest against another team fighting for an NCAA tournament bid.
“Our juniors on offense are really starting to find their groove. Grace Fallon, Maddie Crutchfield and Kyra Harney were really instrumental last weekend,” Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “For whatever reason, it’s taken us a little while to get to [where we want to be], and now we have to go out and be able to play that way this weekend too.”
Although the Blue Devils (7-6) have had no problems distributing the scoring this season—they have seven players with at least 13 tallies—they have struggled to create opportune chances out of their set offense, often leading to forced passes that end up in opponents’ sticks.
Last time out, though, attacker Olivia Jenner dominated on draw controls, allowing Duke to find some clean looks early in the shot clock with the defense on its heels.
The Blue Devils rolled from there. Crutchfield, the team’s leading scorer, has remained hot since scoring the game-winning goal March 29 at No. 16 Elon. The All-American midfielder has registered at least three points in her last three contests and dominated play against the Eagles, accounting for a team-best six points on the afternoon.
As a team, Duke has scored 34 goals in its last three contests.
“We had a great practice yesterday. [Assistant coach] Lars Keil looked at me [and said], ‘Our offense doesn’t look good, it looks great,’” Kimel said. “For one of the first times this year, [we’re showing] what we’re capable of.”
Jenner’s play in the draw circle should not come as a surprise to anybody—the sophomore ranks 10th in the nation in individual draw controls per game. But it will not be easy against the Wildcats (7-7), who will counter with junior attack Shelby Fredericks. Fredericks is five spots ahead of Jenner in the category.
Even if the Blue Devils gain control off the draw, the Wildcats are no slouch on their end of the field, thanks in large part to goalkeeper Mallory Weisse. The sophomore, in tandem with an experienced defense, has been able to occasionally shut down opposing offenses despite seeing more shots due to the introduction of the shot clock this year—Weisse stops just fewer than half of all opposing shots on target.
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Like Kimel’s squad, Northwestern has also been through an up-and-down season. The Wildcats dropped five of six early in their season but have cruised through the softer part of their schedule. Their defense has led the resurgence, and Northwestern is now one of the better teams in the nation on that end—the Wildcats did not allow more than 10 goals in five straight contests before losing 14-13 to No. 6 Penn State Thursday night.
Duke’s defense is also finding its footing after Kimel replaced sophomore netminder Jamie Lockwood with freshman Gabbe Cadoux three games ago. Cadoux is coming off a career-high 11 saves against one of the nation’s most efficient offenses in the Eagles.
Still, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Week refuses to take individual credit for her improved play.
“We have a very, very good defensive unit,” Cadoux said. “They force shots that I want to see and we work on that in practice. They execute very well and are very coachable.”
One of the key players of the squad—senior defender and co-captain Isabelle Montagne—will also be returning home to play in front of her family and friends at Northwestern. The Lake Forest, Ill., native has been saddled with injuries in her final season but has started the past six contests, and Duke has improved with her on the field.
Montagne and the rest of the Blue Devil defense will have their hands full with a trio of upperclassmen for the Wildcats up front. Christina Esposito leads the team with 34 goals and 44 points, and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week Danita Stroup and senior Catie Ingrilli provide additional offense.
In a matchup of two teams fighting tooth and nail for a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, Saturday’s game will probably be decided by the more desperate team, and Kimel recognizes just that.
“Our kids know where we are at this point in the season. They know that our backs are against the wall, and we’ve responded really well,” Kimel said. “Our mind is pretty clear and focused on our game plan for Northwestern.”