When the final whistle blew last November at Jack Katz Stadium, the home team stood in shock. The top-ranked Blue Devils had been upset by Delaware in overtime in the NCAA quarterfinals, a stunning end to a game in which Duke outshot the Blue Hens 23-13 and led 2-0 with fewer than 10 minutes to play in regulation. 

Even more troubling, it marked the end of an era for seven departing seniors and graduate students who oversaw a revival of the program under head coach Pam Bustin. 

Now, the team is in the hands of a new group of seniors led by the high-powered duo of Alyssa Chillano and Ashley Kristen, the program’s top two returners in points from last season. And despite the heartbreak of a season ago, Duke returns in 2017 with even higher expectations as the preseason No. 2 team in the nation.

“[The seniors] have always been very good leaders—they don’t need to be seniors to have that impact. However, because they are such strong leaders, and they’ve had leadership roles and input throughout their four years, it seems like a real natural place for them to be now,” Bustin said. “This is kind of the team that they’ve put together over the years, so it’s nice to see them so comfortable and have such ownership of the team.”

The loss to Delaware was the latest in a series of near-misses in the postseason for the Blue Devils’ Class of 2018, which has otherwise enjoyed steady success in the regular season. When Kristen and Chillano were freshmen in 2014, Duke fell twice to top-ranked North Carolina in the postseason, first in the ACC tournament quarterfinals and then in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

As sophomores, the Blue Devils fell again in the ACC quarterfinals, this time to Virginia, before getting knocked out of the NCAA tournament by the Tar Heels for the second year in a row. The postseason futility culminated in the loss to Delaware a season ago, which came on the heels of yet another loss to North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. 

“It definitely fueled our spring season. [Those losses] were at the end of the season, and that’s when they really matter and they really count the most,” Chillano said. “We have to be able to push all the way through to make it to our ultimate goal at the end. The losses definitely bring you together, and it was good to learn together and work in the offseason in the spring and in the summer to kick butt our final year, and do it together.”

Indeed, doing things together will again be key for a Duke team that averaged the third-most assists in the nation a year ago. Kristen and Chillano were the beneficiaries on a number of those assists, as the duo combined to score 20 goals, nearly a third of the team’s total for the season. The pair also dished out 13 assists and represent two of four double-digit point scorers who are returning for the Blue Devils this year. 

In addition to leading the team in points and goals last season with 32 and 13, respectively, Chillano is also the anchor for a defensive unit that finished 12th in the nation in goals-against average in 2016. The All-American center back from Phoenixville, Pa., was also recognized with a place on the preseason All-ACC team in 2017. 

“Alyssa has a great impact on this team, on and off the field. She’s a great teammate, she’s an intense competitor and she’s very good, but still has a level of humility about herself and about her play that allows her to continue to be coached,” Bustin said. “She just keeps getting better, and she really cares. That’s one of the best qualities about Alyssa—that she really does care about her teammates, about the program and about what she brings every day.”

Kristen, Chillano’s counterpart on the other end of the field, is both productive—she scored seven times last year—and efficient, boasting a .304 shot conversion percentage. She also notched seven assists, good for second behind team-leader Margaux Paolino, and was recognized with an NFHCA All-South Region selection to the second team.

Although their contributions on the field will be key, the leadership and experience that Duke’s group of six seniors brings will be just as critical for the Blue Devils, who currently have 14 opponents on the schedule who were ranked in the preseason. 

The progress from last season has been notable already in the fall, as the Blue Devils picked up their first win of the season with a 5-0 shutout against William and Mary last Friday after a strong showing against the Tar Heels in a preseason scrimmage.

“We worked really well together. We were working on what we worked on in the spring and this preseason. We’ve been really trying to focus on attacking, moving together as a unit up the field, and I think we all did really well,” Kristen said after the scrimmage. “As seniors, we all strive to lead together. It’s going to be an exciting year.”

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.