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Duke fall sports preview: Field hockey

All-American Margaux Paolino graduated this past May, leaving Duke's attacking line to the younger Blue Devils this season.
All-American Margaux Paolino graduated this past May, leaving Duke's attacking line to the younger Blue Devils this season.

Editor's note: This article has been altered to reflect Duke's newly-announced schedule that was released Sept. 4.


The Duke field hockey team could use a little chaos right now. Last year, the Blue Devils suffered their worst season since 2012, going an abysmal 1-5 in conference play. Worse, they lost their two All-Americans, Margaux Paolino and Jillian Wolgemuth, as well as goalie Sammi Steele to the cap and gown.

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is the wild card of wild cards. Will a concoction of youth, uncertainty and vengefulness propel head coach Pam Bustin's Duke to its first-ever ACC championship? Or will the same forces push the team back into last season’s struggles?

New player to watch: Eva Nunnink

While Nunnink is fresh blood, she certainly isn’t new to the sport. Nunnink is a graduate midfielder/defender from the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands. She could make a difference on the field with steady play. More likely, though, we’ll see her presence best felt off the field, as a mentor for the six Blue Devil freshmen adjusting to the college pace.

Returning player to watch: Charlotte Johnson

Sophomore goalie Charlotte Johnson has big shoes to fill. Sammi Steele was Duke’s anchor in goal from 2016 through 2019, though the “Steele Wall” was probably a more apt metaphor. Johnson played just seven minutes last season, and there won’t be much time to adjust to the bright lights and the absent crowds in a short season. If Johnson steps into her role with confidence, she’ll give the Blue Devils a fighting chance in the strongest conference in the country.

Most anticipated matchup: North Carolina, Oct. 4/Oct. 18

The Tar Heels have won 46 straight games—they didn't lose a match last year or the year before that. The odds for the Blue Devils to steamroll the NCAA champions of 2018 and 2019 shouldn't be in Duke's favor. And yet still, it's a Tobacco Road showdown, which means the odds will be pretty much even. Don't count out the Devils.

Best-case scenario

Duke’s young talent adjusts to the awkward playing situation better than everyone else. Through six regular-season games, the Blue Devils finish in second place in the ACC. Even a lucky Duke field hockey team probably won’t take its first-ever conference tournament championship, though it may scrape by to the final.

Worst-case scenario

The real worst-case scenario involves no field hockey at all. However, assuming a full six-game season, Duke at its worst could look lost without its core players, leadership and easy nonconference opponents. The Blue Devils struggle to put the pieces together and can’t build teamwork while socially distancing. They fall to the very bottom of the conference, finishing seventh and bowing out in the first round of the ACC tournament. 

Prediction: 5-5, fourth in ACC, loss in ACC quarterfinals

Editor's note: This is a part of The Chronicle's series of previews for Duke's fall sports, the rest of which can be found here.


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