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'It's a special group': Duke field hockey fights to the end in Senior Day loss to North Carolina

Duke hosted North Carolina on Senior Day, falling 2-0 in a hard-fought game on its home turf.
Duke hosted North Carolina on Senior Day, falling 2-0 in a hard-fought game on its home turf.

Hall of Fame NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said that a great team, “whether [they] win or lose … have applied the best version of [themselves] to the task at hand.” On the field Saturday, the Blue Devils played their best brand of field hockey.

Although No. 25 Duke lost the contest 2-0 against No. 1 North Carolina under the cloudy skies at Jack Katz Stadium, the Blue Devils worked nonstop for 60 minutes and put in an excellent performance on Senior Day. They prevented the ferocious Tar Heel offense, averaging 4.43 goals per game entering Saturday, from scoring for the final 30 minutes of play.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the team effort,” head coach Pam Bustin said after the game. “What we did to come up with a game plan for today was really exciting. We did some different things today. To have a team that wants it and opens up to it … that’s fun.” 

The beginning of the afternoon was more challenging for the Blue Devils. Unable to escape the monstrous North Carolina pressure, they found themselves pinned in their own half for long stretches of the action. With 32 seconds left in the first quarter, Duke (7-10, 0-6 in the ACC) conceded its third corner and North Carolina’s Erin Matson reminded the crowd why she is perhaps the best collegiate field hockey player of all time, coolly slotting the ball into the bottom left corner of the goal. 

Matson, the all-time ACC goals leader, would also contribute to the second North Carolina goal shortly afterward, displaying her impeccable vision. After a quick passing sequence, Matson fired an excellent one-time pass that found the cutting Kennedy Cliggett near the left side of the goal for an easy tap-in.

“She’s phenomenal,” Bustin said of Matson. “You can only contain [her] so much and for so long.”

Coming out of the break, Duke found an extra gear. Suddenly, it was able to break the Tar Heel press and created scoring opportunities. One moment of brilliance occurred when sophomore midfielder Josephine Palde glided past five North Carolina defenders using her quick stick skills, driving from the midfield line into the circle. She then earned Duke a corner, its third of the contest. 

The fourth quarter also saw the Blue Devils control the tempo of the game, passing the ball around the midfield at will. North Carolina (15-0, 6-0) appeared to grow frustrated, evidenced by Matson’s yellow card for a hit on a Duke midfielder. However, the Blue Devils were unable to find that elusive first goal and capitalize on their momentum.

“We have got to take advantage of the opportunities that we have in the circle … and make sure we lock in on those,” Bustin said.

After the game, Duke honored seven players: seniors Mary Harkins, Charlotte Johnson, Hannah Miller, Kelsey Reznick and Josie Varney, and graduate students Grace Brightbill and Raphaelle van de Walle. The players were given bouquets of flowers and took photos with their families on the field. The underclassmen then made a tunnel of honor for the graduates, and the whole team broke into a dance circle when Enur’s “Calabria” came over the speakers. When asked what the senior leadership meant to her, Bustin teared up.

“I haven’t had this much fun coaching in a really long, really long time. It’s a special group and their love for the university is apparent.”

Duke begins postseason play in the ACC tournament Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. as the No. 7 seed against No. 2-seed Wake Forest at Jack Katz Stadium. Although the Blue Devils lost 3-0 to the Demon Deacons earlier this fall, the team seems to be heading into the postseason with the right attitude.

“If [the team] comes up with that energy that they had today,” Bustin said. “We’re going to have a great game on Tuesday.”

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