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No. 5 Duke women's soccer set to close the regular season at Notre Dame

<p>The Blue Devils will need a strong performance from one of its veterans.</p>

The Blue Devils will need a strong performance from one of its veterans.

After a Senior Day win that marked the Blue Devils’ third straight comeback victory, Duke hits the road one last time and will hope to come out with a bang.

The fifth-ranked Blue Devils take on Notre Dame at Alumni Stadium in South Bend, Ind., at 7 p.m. Thursday. Duke has given up a goal within the first 10 minutes in all of its last three matches, and all three game-winning goals for Duke have come in the final 15 minutes of the match as well, coming off the feet of seniors Taylor Racioppi and Kayla McCoy and sophomore Karlie Paschall. Although the Blue Devils have had success scoring in the second half, Duke will look to prevent early scoring from the Fighting Irish, who are 6-0 this season when they score first. 

“The silver lining there is we know if we fall behind, we can come back and win. That’s not always the case, so that’s a good thing,” head coach Robbie Church said. “We also understand that in tournament time when teams score goals, they’re just going to fall behind and pack and play defense. We aren’t giving too many goals at this stage, but we are giving up silly goals. We have to cut down on the goals we’re conceding at this time.”

Racioppi and McCoy have had substantial offensive success in the past few matches, and Racioppi has tied her career-high for goals in a season with seven so far. McCoy’s goal Sunday marked her 36th career goal and moved her into sole possession of fourth on Duke's all-time goals list. Both seniors are a part of the winningest senior class in program history, alongside Kat McDonald and Chelsea Burns, and were honored Sunday for their achievements. 

The Blue Devils (13-2-2, 7-1-1 in the ACC) have also recently shifted their defensive strategy. Duke has implemented a more suffocating press, focusing on attacking on offense and drawing its back line more toward midfield. This shift has yielded dividends for the Blue Devils. 

With a movement toward more pressure, Duke made some defensive mistakes that allowed the Eagles to break through the back line. These mistakes included a misplaced header by Burns and a few fast breaks that led to open opportunities for Boston College. 

“I think we wanted the tempo to be a little faster and we wanted to lock [Boston College] in a bit. We did press a little bit more. Some of it was good, but some of it backfired as well,” Church said. “Once we have the ball, we want to be aware of where they are so if the ball turns over, we’re not scrambling. We are sometimes a little too far from players, and so they get the ball and find their open player and then we are scrambling.”

But the Blue Devils arguably benefited more than they struggled, as freshman Delaney Graham used her position at midfield to receive a pass and easily beat the Eagles’ defense, feeding it to sophomore Tess Boade. Boade then rolled it to McCoy to give Duke its game-winning goal. Graham’s performance was also helped by fellow classmate Mackenzie Pluck, who tagged her fourth goal of the season in the 32nd minute to tie it. 

“Delaney is a 90-minute player these days. She’s been something else. She’s fast, she’s tough, she wins the ball,” Church said. “There were a couple of plays when [Boston College] got counters on corner kicks and if it hadn’t been Delaney back there, we would’ve been in trouble. She was able to chase a couple people down that no one else on the team would have.”

For Duke, a win would finalize an ACC record of 8-1-1, the second-highest mark for the Blue Devils in more than a decade. It would provide Duke a better chance of hosting more rounds of the NCAA tournament at Koskinen Stadium. 

The story is a bit different for Notre Dame (8-9-0, 4-5-0). A win against Duke on Thursday would allow the Fighting Irish to break even at .500 in the conference on the season and make them eligible for the NCAA tournament.  

In Notre Dame’s last time out, the Fighting Irish shut out Pittsburgh on the road thanks to a season-high six saves from freshman goalkeeper Mattie Interian. Interian is one of two goalkeepers that Notre Dame uses, balancing the workload with junior Brooke Littman.

Littman has started 10 games for the Fighting Irish and Interian has started seven. Interian has the higher save percentage between the two, clocking in at 73.2 percent. 

Offensively, Notre Dame is led by fifth-year student Karin Muya and junior Jennifer Westendorf. Muya, who was out for two years due to injuries, leads all Irish players with 15 points on the season. She has tallied seven goals and one assist. Westendorf follows closely behind Muya with 13 points on four goals and five assists. 

“There are two things here. One is where Notre Dame sits—they’re one game under .500, so they have to win the game to be eligible for the NCAA tournament. So it’s all-out,” Church said. "They’re going to be a desperate team and are going to come out and play as one against us. That’s going to be great for us.” 

With its win Sunday against then-No. 11 Boston College, Duke sealed the second seed in the ACC tournament and will host the quarterfinal matchup on Oct. 28. 

“We want to get better. The only way to get better is to continue to play,” Church said. “Pretty soon, it’s going to get to the point where there’s only one game and if you don’t get it done, your season ends abruptly. I like how we’re doing things, but we have a lot of room for improvement.”  


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