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Duke field hockey set to face powerhouse North Carolina

The Blue Devils' offense has to be aggressive if they want to pull off the upset against their Tobacco Road rivals.
The Blue Devils' offense has to be aggressive if they want to pull off the upset against their Tobacco Road rivals.

As this abbreviated season approaches its midpoint, the Blue Devils find themselves in hot water, gasping for air as the elite opponents just keep on coming.

After losing both of its opening games at Louisville, Duke will play its first home game of the season against rival North Carolina Sunday at 12 p.m. at Williams Field at Jack Katz Stadium.

The Blue Devils are coming off of a challenging start. Both of their losses at Louisville were decisive victories for the Cardinals, though Duke was able to give its opponents much more of a challenge in the second game, shaking off some of the rust and jitters to make it an even match for the first half.

“Not only did we score a goal, so it looks good on the scoreboard, but we out-statted them,” head coach Pam Bustin said. “You know when we look back, we had more circle penetrations and we created more turnovers, and that's really exciting.”

After Louisville handled Duke, it welcomed North Carolina to town Friday and made history in the process.

The Cardinals defeated the Tar Heels 3-1, ending two-time defending champion North Carolina’s 47-game winning streak, a streak that dated back to 2017 and was the longest active streak in all of Division I college sports. The Blue Devils (0-2, 0-1 in the ACC) now have a valuable opportunity to watch this film and craft a more strategic game plan than they had in their first two outings.

“For us, it's really just continuing to practice and recognize situations that we want to improve on,” Bustin said. “So for instance, [reigning National Player of the Year] Erin Matson obviously is a really key player...but there are times where she comes a little deeper into the backfield a little higher forward and those are the things that we just want our team to be aware of as we continue to understand and get more comfortable with our tactics.”

Duke will need to work tirelessly to open up its offense if it wants to repeat Louisville’s impressive upset against the Tar Heels (1-1, 0-1 in the ACC). The Blue Devils finished their opening road trip with 7.5 shots per game, just over half of last season’s average of 13.8. Of course, the Cardinals have proven to be a very accomplished team, so decreased shots are to be expected. However, Duke will be playing another elite opponent Sunday and can’t afford to make excuses.

Even if the Blue Devils are able to find scoring opportunities, the challenges won’t end there. Putting the ball in the back of the net will be even more difficult.

Tar Heel goalkeeper Amanda Hendry has had an incredible start to the season, with a 0.769 save percentage, a slight improvement from her already staggering 2019 average of 0.737. While her saves weren’t enough to save North Carolina from a Louisville victory Friday, they will be a tremendous asset and a tough challenge for Duke come Sunday.

“I hope we can get to the goalkeeper tomorrow because she is key,” Bustin said. “They've got two goalkeepers who are very good. And for us, our attack has improved tremendously, so [I’m] hoping our attack can be better than their defense tomorrow.”

Duke will need to play at the highest level possible to take home its first win of the year. If not, the Blue Devils will have to settle for another valuable learning experience to take them into the second half of the season.

“I think we're still at the point where there's some things we can pull out from our opponents, including UNC, but it really is still about the development of our own team,” Bustin said. “I think, for us, it's really about continuing to practice and recognize situations that we want to improve on.”

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