New year, new team. After a heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament less than a year ago, the Blue Devils have turned their focus to this season. Determined to become a perennial contender, coach Kerstin Kimmel brought in an incredible recruiting class that features six US All-Americans: Carly Bernstein, Kennedy Everson, Tess Gagliano, Ellie Lazzaretto, Kerry Nease and Reilly Traynor.
The All-Americans in this class bring a number of awards and accolades. From Jackie Pitts awards, to regional Players of the Year, to Insider Lacrosse's "Players on the Rise," these six girls are well-recognized and respected. They are also balanced position-wise, containing two atackers, two midfielders, a defender and a goalie. This spread will be crucial for the team in future seasons, as they will have talented veterans across the field.
And talent isn’t the only addition that the freshman class brings to the team.
“They bring an edge, they bring like an edginess to them, which I think is always valuable,” said Kimmel. “…We’ve got a handful of freshmen who I think have the opportunity to really help us this year.”
That edginess will help the freshmen compete with other elite ACC teams despite their age and experience level.
One luxury that this year’s class is afforded is veterans around them. Many of the fifth-years and seniors have been starting since their first season, playing important roles as leaders. This year’s freshman class has the ability to learn from their teammates, but with that comes the challenge of readiness.
“They have to catch up to the level that we're playing at and we’re coaching at… because we're not a younger team, we're not coaching down. So they have to play catch up quick,” said Kimmel.
And the freshmen are doing just that.
“They're working their tails off right now to put themselves in position to contribute this year.”
A prime example is goalie Everson. The New Jersey native was a four year starter at Phillips Academy Andover and named to the Under Armour All-American North team in her senior season, as well as being a US Lacrosse All-American. Everson is entering a packed goalie room that boasts senior Sophia LeRose at its helm. Even with so much talent at the position, Everson is putting herself in a position to contribute and contribute early with her strong work ethic and dedication. What sets her apart, according to Kimmel, is her dependability.
“Kennedy is really, really steady and really consistent…she will be there for us,” said Kimmel. Everson is the fifth and youngest goalie on the roster, so she has a wealth of experience around her to learn from. Not only do the plethora of goalkeepers push each other and hold each other accountable, they also have been helpful with Everson’s transition to college athletics
“It's great knowing that they can teach me about the ways they play sort of aspects of their game that they find helpful in the collegiate level games,” said Everson.
Adjusting to NCAA play, and college life, is no small feat. The gameplay is faster and at a much higher level. Players who excelled in high school and club need to adjust their style of play.
“When you get to college, obviously there's a lot more thinking and their scheme and systems in place…the game is faster, it's more physical,” said Kimmel.
After inconsistent high school experiences due to COVID-19, this difference was increased. However, the team has had their backs the entire way, according to Everson.
While they do have an opportunity to adjust, the season, and with it important games, has arrived. Last season the Blue Devils found themselves in countless big moments, like the ACC or NCAA tournaments. Nothing can replace experience in those crucial minutes, so with that newfound knowledge Duke is prepared to make a deep run. This is yet another catch-up moment for the freshmen class. No matter how much talent they bring in, they lack that experience. Where do they find a substitute? Practice.
“Being able to just practice against some of the attack, and some of the defensive members of our team has been really helpful, because those are some of the best players in the country,” said Everson on preparing for the upcoming ACC matchups.
While it might not replicate the pressure of an elimination game, it does simulate the level of talent the Blue Devils will have to face. Nease is no stranger to this. The midfielder was a draw specialist in high school, and joins draw expert Maddie Jenner. Jenner was recently named an Insider Lacrosse Preseason All-American and is one of the most effective draw players in nation. Needs has had the opportunity to learn from her, and it has improved her own game.
“It's been awesome… as freshmen to get to know her approach to the draw,” said Nease. “It's been definitely very helpful to go against the best real person in the country every day in practice.”
Jenner’s experience and expertise will only allow Nease to grow and improve, especially as Jenner has no more than two seasons left of eligibility. When she departs, Nease will be able to take over much of her workload for a smooth transition of power.
However the season may turn out, the freshmen are in it together. While their roles this year are yet to be determined, they are creating the chemistry and building the foundation that will serve them, and the team, well for the rest of their Duke careers.
“We're always there for each other, and no matter if we're just hanging out in the dorms or heading out to practice, all the freshmen are always right next to each other, helping each other out or just bringing each other's morales up,” said Nease. This year’s class is special, and will drive the Blue Devils for years to come.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.