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Quick start not enough as Duke women's lacrosse falls to Northwestern in Elite 8

Sophomore Olivia Carner scored a career-high five goals against Northwestern.
Sophomore Olivia Carner scored a career-high five goals against Northwestern.

 For the first 10 minutes, it looked like Duke was going to blow past undefeated Northwestern.

But lacrosse is a game of runs, and the Blue Devils found themselves on the wrong side of one. 

Despite the early lead, Duke couldn’t keep up with the nation-leading offense of Northwestern, and fell in the NCAA quarterfinals 22-10 at Martin Stadium in Evanston, Ill., Saturday. After a one-goal win over Maryland in Durham a week earlier, the Blue Devils traveled for the first time this tournament, but had their road trip cut short. Duke gave it everything it had, but couldn’t maintain momentum against a Wildcat team that leads the country in a multitude of categories, including goals and draw controls per game. 

“I told our girls that the quarterfinal game is a lot of times the hardest game in the tournament to win and advance from,” head coach Kerstin Kimel said. “I'm just so proud of our group. It was not our day today—Northwestern was fantastic. I'm sad the season is over. I'm sad that this group won't get to play together again. But, as hard as today is, we're also excited to look forward to what the future brings for us.”

Northwestern hadn’t played an ACC team all season and Duke took early advantage of its inexperience outside the Big Ten.

Duke star Gabby Rosenzweig opened up the scoring, less than a minute and a half after the initial whistle. Five minutes later, after a series of empty possessions on both sides of the field, sophomore Olivia Carner put up the Blue Devils’ second goal of the game, the first of what turned out to be a career-high five goals for her. The Wildcats quickly responded with a score of their own, but the Duke offense continued to fire on all cylinders.

“The talent yesterday asked who was our most underrated player and I said Cubby Biscardi and Olivia Carner,” Kimel said. “[Carner] is a beast, and she gets it done on both ends of the field and on the draw circle as well. She had five goals on five shots. Part of what has made us a great team all year is that we have been truly kind of a seven-man offense. It depends on the day, who's gonna step up for us, but we have confidence that somebody will and today it was Carner.”  

Over the next five minutes, the Blue Devils added four more tallies to the scoreboard—two of those from Carner—while holding the high-octane offense of the Wildcats without a single shot over the same span. At this point Duke had a 6-1 lead, and the five-goal difference was the largest deficit that Northwestern had faced all-season. 

But after Duke’s sixth goal, a media timeout was called and the Wildcat team that came out of the timeout was not the same one that entered. 

Over the next 10 minutes, Northwestern chipped away at the Blue Devil lead, tying it at 7-7 with less than nine minutes to go, but the Wildcats weren’t content there and continued to add to their total, and headed into halftime up 12-8.

The second period continued much the same way, as the Wildcats began to pull further and further away, dominating the Blue Devils in almost every statistical category, including the draw control where Duke normally thrives.

After a goal by senior Abby Landry brought the Blue Devils within seven with 12:33 to go, a comeback still seemed possible, especially if they could recreate their success from the opening 12 minutes of the game. Instead, it only provided a brief reprieve from the onslaught of Northwestern goals, as the Wildcats scored the last five of the match, ending a massive 21-4 offensive run as they sent Duke home with its largest loss of the season.

A season-ending loss is never easy but, in a year of sports unlike any other, the resolve of this team must be commended. Don’t let yourself be fooled—this team’s actual NCAA tournament run may have started and finished in an eight-day period, but it truly began over a year ago in March 2020, when COVID-19 flipped the athletic scene and world on its head overnight. 

“Our season was a combination of not just a year's worth of work, but a year-and-a-half worth of work,” said Kimel. “We worked so hard coming out of the 2019 season to build ourselves into a NCAA tournament caliber team, both on and off the field. We had such good momentum when the season stopped last year [and] our players did a phenomenal job of never letting go of last year.”

On March 10, 2020, the Blue Devils took down East Carolina for their sixth win of the season and looked to be on their way to an NCAA tournament berth. A day later, their upcoming matchup with Pennsylvania was cancelled per Ivy League policy, making that the first Duke athletics matchup cancelled due to coronavirus. Days after that they saw their season suspended and soon after that, cancelled. Even when athletics resumed, all Duke teams had strict health and safety protocol to follow in order to play. 

"We were determined to not let COVID stop us from becoming the team that we could be,” Kimel said. “We had a really tough protocol that we had to follow and our kids never questioned it. They never wavered. They didn't want to be the team that screwed it up for themselves or screwed it up for another team. It takes mental fortitude, commitment and sacrifice. All of our athletes have sacrificed so much. I could not say enough about what an awesome job they did with that all season.”

But through it all, they persisted and competed, not allowing themselves to be bogged down by what couldn’t happen, instead focusing on what they could still do and what they still had, namely each other. And now that they’ve once again had a taste of what an NCAA tournament run feels like, you can surely expect to see them continue to seek out that feeling and show why Duke is one of the top women’s lacrosse programs in the country. 

“We were warriors this season,” Kimel said. “We can pick up and build off of where we've been this year, [but] we need to be better, we need to be able to play better in order to advance to the Final Four, and have that opportunity at a national championship. And our kids won't be deterred by this at all. 

"It'll be really, really tough to lose the six kids we're going to lose to graduation here. But after the girls have time to kind of decompress and breathe for the first time all year, you'll see our leadership start to emerge. And we'll do the same thing we did last summer, which is onboard a new class and get ready to pick up the sticks in late August, early September and get going again.”

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