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Duke field hockey drops home-opener to North Carolina in penalty-filled contest

Duke's offense has struggled to begin the 2020 campaign, notching one goal through three games.
Duke's offense has struggled to begin the 2020 campaign, notching one goal through three games.

The Blue Devils looked to rebound from a disappointing double-header last weekend at Louisville.

But ultimately, two-time defending national champion North Carolina proved too strong, as Duke fell to its Tobacco Road rivals 4-0 Sunday afternoon at Williams Field at Jack Katz Stadium.

It was about as perfect of a day as you can get, and Duke came out with the fire of a team trying to turn around a somewhat lackluster start to the season. The Blue Devils lost their opening two games against the Cardinals, but it’s hard to scorn them for the defeats after those same Cardinals went on to snap the Tar Heels’ 47-game win streak, the second-longest in NCAA field hockey history.

Sparks of a great Duke team shined through despite its losses, and the group left Louisville on a hopeful note. Those sparks were still there against North Carolina Sunday, but the Blue Devils may start wondering when those sparks will become a fire. 

“We just need to learn how to sustain our level of play and sustain the level of attack,” head coach Pam Bustin said.

Duke (0-3, 0-2 in the ACC) largely controlled the first quarter. The Blue Devils looked confident, their passes were connecting and, and while they weren’t taking a whole lot of shots, the Tar Heels (2-1, 1-1) were barely touching the ball at all. That final push to the striking circle and into the back of the goal cage felt like it was coming. 

But, after stealing the ball from a regroup attempt, North Carolina forward and reigning National Player of the Year Erin Matson rushed down the field on a breakaway and scored unassisted with just two minutes remaining in the period.

The energy of the game changed after that first goal. With more confidence and more aggression, the Tar Heels put the Blue Devils on the defensive and quashed any opportunities in the striking circle. Duke finished the first half with just one shot against North Carolina’s eight. 

Shots and goals don’t tell you everything about a game, however. The Blue Devils did a great job of maintaining possession when they got the ball, though that possession often went nowhere. 

“I think we’re approaching the circle, and we’re attacking the circle, but we’re not doing it with the mindset to shoot for some reason,” Bustin said. 

When the Blue Devils did turn the ball over, the Tar Heels outpaced them and wasted little time in getting the ball to the striking circle, exploiting every little mistake from their opponents. North Carolina went on to score another goal in the third and two in the fourth. 

It was in these moments that Duke cracked. With North Carolina outworking them in the striking circle, the Blue Devils panicked and resorted to fouling, conceding eight penalty corners throughout the afternoon.

Though she wants to work on limiting those corner opportunities in the future, Bustin was satisfied with the work of the corner defense as well as freshman goalie Piper Hampsch. The Tar Heels only scored on one of those penalty corners, and that was largely because of the organized, calm play of the defense. 

In fact, while it might seem odd to say with four goals against on the board, Hampsch was a standout throughout the contest. Coming into the season, she had some big shoes to fill stepping in for four-year starter Sammi Steele. But it's safe to say that this game’s score would have looked a lot different had Hampsch not picked off a number of dangerous shots and scoring opportunities.

Though this is certainly not the outcome the Blue Devils wanted, and they have a lot to work on in the next week, Bustin is not discouraged. 

“I still have so much confidence and belief in this group,” Bustin said. “We’ve just got to get everybody kind of firing with the same cylinders at the same time.” 

It has been a rocky start to the season, but the building blocks for a solid year are still slowly stacking up, just maybe not as fast as the team would like. Duke’s next contest isn’t until Oct. 16 against Boston College at home.

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