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ChronSports' 2020 what-if series: Duke women's lacrosse

Katie Cronin led the Blue Devils with 22 goals this season.
Katie Cronin led the Blue Devils with 22 goals this season.

With the suspension and later cancellation of all Duke athletic competition due to the spread of coronavirus, many Blue Devil seasons were abruptly cut short. The Chronicle is going to take a look back at those seasons affected as well as what we missed out on with their cancellations. We've already looked at men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball and men's lacrosse. Next up: women's lacrosse.

Season summary

After missing out on the NCAA tournament in 2019 and losing seven seniors, in addition to star attacker Charlotte North to Boston College, Duke came into 2020 searching for its identity. But it didn’t take the team long to find it, dominating Gardner-Webb in its season opener to give head coach Kerstin Kimel her 300th career victory. 

The Blue Devils quickly established themselves as one of the top offensive teams in the country, but their struggles against ranked teams continued to plague them, losing to third-ranked Northwestern and 15th-ranked Navy by a combined score of five. But from there, Duke found its groove, winning four of its next five including a 16-10 victory against No. 12 Virginia. This marked the Blue Devils' first win against a ranked opponent since beating Notre Dame in the ACC tournament last April. It looked like Duke had finally broken through and were on track to make a run to the NCAA tournament before its season was cut short just over a week after that victory.

Team MVP

After losing several of their top scorers to graduation or transfer, it was unclear who would step up for the Blue Devils this season. As it turned out, it would be freshman Caroline DeBellis, sister of former player and now student assistant coach Sam DeBellis. Caroline quickly established herself as Duke’s top offensive threat, scoring seven points in her first career match. But she wasn’t just a goal-scorer—she was also a supremely gifted distributor, dishing out a team-high 19 assists on the season. She led the Blue Devils in points scored and was recently named to the All-ILWomen Rookie Team by Inside Lacrosse. Junior Katie Cronin led the team with 22 goals, but it was DeBellis who proved to be the driving force of Duke's offense.

What we missed out on

The clock ended on Duke’ season before the Blue Devils were able to prove themselves against the powerhouse teams that make up the ACC. After cruising past Virginia and East Carolina, they had a home matchup against No. 9 Pennsylvania just around the corner—that contest ended up being the first Duke athletics matchup cancelled due to coronavirus. The rest of their season consisted of similarly talented teams, giving the Blue Devils an excellent shot at playing themselves into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.

Best-case scenario

After consistently struggling against ranked teams and ACC opponents throughout the regular season over the last few years, this season looked to be the year that the Blue Devils would finally break through. After relying on one or two scorers to produce the majority of its goals in the past, Duke was particularly deep this year, often having more than five players register their names in the box score and sometimes having as many as 10. In addition to their offensive firepower, the Blue Devils continued to dominate on the draw, with sophomore Maddie Jenner showing that she’s one of the best on the draw in the country. With Duke already firing on all offensive cylinders and continually improving on defense, this year's Blue Devils certainly seemed to be heading toward their first winning season in the ACC and first NCAA tournament berth in four years.

Worst-case scenario

Despite establishing themselves as a whole-team offense, the Blue Devils were still trying to find their rhythm on defense, especially against top programs with talented offenses. A win against the Cavaliers looked promising, but there are no guarantees that Duke would’ve been able to keep up with the speed of some of the rest of the teams on its schedule. An early surge by DeBellis propelled the Blue Devils to several wins in the opening of their season, but as the schedule wore on, more teams would focus their attention on DeBellis and prevent her from distributing the ball like she has proven herself apt at doing. Duke may have picked up a couple more ACC wins, but as proven to be the case in the past, too much of the conference is simply a tier above the Blue Devils. While this may have been their year to show off a new-look offense, their still-forming team defense may have never come together and Duke would once again find its season ending in the ACC tournament rather than the NCAA tournament. 

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