Duke’s been in a similar position before. For its seniors, juniors and sophomores, it is nearly déjà vu.
Rewind to last season—when the Blue Devils missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since their inaugural year—Duke found itself just on the outside looking in with the season winding down. Despite battling in the top 25 for most of the season, a lack of marquee victories highlighted last season’s disappointment.
With victories against now-No. 7 Northwestern and now-No. 16 Syracuse, the Blue Devils are in a slightly better position, despite ranking just one spot out of a tournament appearance per the NCAA’s RPI rankings. They will need to take care of business against a team that is in a similar position to boost their chances.
No. 19 Duke will face Notre Dame Sunday at 1 p.m. at Arlotta Stadium in South Bend, Ind., hoping to stop a two-game slide with just two regular season matchups remaining. The Fighting Irish boast one of the better defenses in the nation in front of junior goalkeeper Samantha Giacolone, who ranks 39th in the country in save percentage, defending 46.6 percent of attempted shots on goal. In the conference, Notre Dame leads the way with a .482 save percentage.
“When we just are who we are and we do the simple things well, we play well, and that’s really got to be our focus going into Notre Dame,” Blue Devil head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “It can’t be more than just us going out and be focused on and dedicated to playing our game for 60 minutes or whatever it takes.”
Despite surrendering more shots on goal than their opponents this season, the Fighting Irish (7-7, 2-4 in the ACC) have managed to maintain a positive scoring margin due to Giacolone’s play. A three-year starter, Giacolone has never registered a save percentage worse than 46 percent and looks to thwart Duke for the third straight time after helping her squad to two nail-biting victories.
Notre Dame’s back line attempts to confuse offensive units by switching defenses during games, shifting from man-to-man to zone and back, with different variations. Luckily for the Blue Devils, they have had to deal with plenty of defensive changes the past two seasons, and should feel confident with their work in practice despite scoring just 20 goals on 47 attempted shots in their past two defeats.
“Notre Dame can throw a couple of different defenses at us,” Kimel said. “Our attackers have to recognize what they are in and then try to get ourselves organized in whatever offense we need to combat that defense.”
On the other side of the ball, Kimel has yet to decide on the starting goalkeeper.
While sophomore Gabbe Cadoux has received the majority of the starts and minutes, junior Jamie Lockwood has seen some time in net, especially of late with Cadoux struggling—the Ellicott City, Md., native has registered just 11 saves the past two games. Lockwood has not made it any easier for Kimel, though, as Duke allowed 34 goals in losses against High Point and Boston College.
“Both of them have been really great [overall]. Of late, in the last couple of games, they’ve been inconsistent, and we need them,” Kimel said. “When we play good defense or when we force teams to take the shots we like, we have to come up with saves.”
It has not been all downhill for the Blue Devils (7-6, 2-3) throughout their past two contests. Junior attacker Olivia Jenner broke her own Duke single-season record for draw controls after amassing 13 against the Panthers. For the year, Jenner leads the nation in draw controls, and behind her efforts, the Blue Devils have been able to lead the nation in the category, averaging nearly 18 draw controls per game.
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If Jenner can lead the charge once again from the draw, Duke’s offense will have more opportunities to wake up its recently dormant offense—which it will need in order to land a pivotal victory.
Kimel’s squad is confident that it will be able to avoid last year’s disappointing fate.
“It’s definitely something that you at least have a minimal thought about, but we’re a very different team than the team we were last year,” Jenner said. “Just given our personnel this year, and cohesion-wise, we’re so different.”