Column: To reach contender status, Duke women’s lacrosse’s climb must begin within stacked ACC

Duke star Maddie Jenner in Duke's April 2022 loss to North Carolina.
Duke star Maddie Jenner in Duke's April 2022 loss to North Carolina.

Through 16 games, last season looked like it was Duke’s time at last. And then, as I sat in the stands at Dorrance Field, surrounded by Carolina blue, I watched it all come crumbling down. 

The Blue Devils' meltdown in the regular-season finale was unexpected, to say the least. While North Carolina was the undisputed top team in the nation, undefeated through the regular season (and eventually the postseason), Duke had risen to fifth in the national polls. A win against its rival would have secured it the top seed in the conference tournament and set it up for a deep national tournament run. It was fresh off an underdog win against No. 2 Boston College on Senior Day. The momentum was in the Blue Devils’ favor—if anyone was going to take down Goliath, the moment would have come April 21, 2022 for Duke.

Everything seemed to go wrong at just the right time. Senior goalkeeper Sophia LeRose was injured, leaving the start to freshman Kennedy Everson. Despite 11 Maddie Jenner draw controls, the Blue Devils could not maintain possession, turning the ball over 15 times. Their high-flying offense was grounded, and the defense couldn’t keep up with the soon-to-be national champions. The final score was a whopping 18-4. 

Duke never recovered from that loss. It fell to Notre Dame 19-11 in its first ACC tournament contest. While it outlasted Johns Hopkins in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it didn’t last against Maryland two days later. Riddled with illness and injury, the Blue Devils failed to complete their underdog story, failed to have their David vs. Goliath rematch. 

Why would this year be any different? First, you need to understand the current state of women’s college lacrosse. 

The big three in the ACC, and the nation, are North Carolina, Boston College and Syracuse. These powerhouses have not only dominated their conference but the nation for over a decade—every national championship game since 2012 has featured one of those three teams. For Duke, breaking into the conversation for national title-contenders means breaking into, and therefore breaking up, that big three. It started that battle last year, narrowly losing to the third-ranked Orange and upsetting the second-ranked Eagles in Koskinen. But when the Tar Heels, high stakes and tournament play arrived, Duke couldn’t make that jump. 

So how does it take that next step? The ACC tournament. 

The Tar Heels have won the last six ACC championships. Three of those times they beat Syracuse in the title game while the other three times they beat Boston College. 

The Blue Devils’ last two ACC tournament trips were ended by Notre Dame in their first game. 

Before Duke can actively compete for a national championship, it needs to get over that conference hump. 

“Across our conference, which is the best conference in the country, we really returned the most out of everybody,” said head coach Kerstin Kimel. “And so we should have our sights set on the ACC tournament first.”

There’s a reason the ACC title is just as hard to claim as the national one. Those same teams that end up in the Final Four battle it out amongst themselves first, forming an almost-impenetrable hold over that conference championship. For any team other than those big three to break through and compete for that title, it needs to be able to do it all over again just a few weeks later. 

It’s easy to talk about but difficult to execute. The Blue Devils don’t lack all-around experience—their starting lineup in 2022 was dominated by seniors and graduate students. Four of those seniors have elected to use their fifth year of eligibility: LeRose, Jenner and attackers Eva Greco and Anna Callahan. Duke’s wealth of young talent is being given the chance to grow and develop without being thrown directly into the fire. The equation should be correct. 

Kimel knows what that big stage feels like. As a player at Maryland, she reached four straight Final Fours and three championship games. However, in her 26-year tenure—the program’s entire history—Duke has only won one ACC championship. 

“If we want to compete for a national championship, we have to manage the end of the season better,” said Kimel. The players’ status as student-athletes—emphasis on the student—is often overlooked. Duke is an academically rigorous institution at which finals just happen to fall right around, and often during, the ACC tournament. The 2021 season coincided with what was still a hybrid-learning style with virtual exams, while 2022 was full-force. This year’s team gets to benefit from that experience last year, however difficult it was at the time. 

Another key move by Kimel? Giving up a home game for the opportunity to play Notre Dame in Charlotte, N.C., at American Legion Memorial Stadium, the location of this year’s conference tournament. Seeing that stage prior to the do-or-die tournament environment will be crucial for a team that hasn’t won an ACC tournament game since 2019.

“That experience of being in those situations is really, really, really important,” said Kimel. “There's television timeouts, and we have that more now in our regular season, but it hits different when you are in the postseason. It's just different stuff like that, that you can't always manufacture in practice or scrimmages or sometimes even in the regular season. It makes the postseason different.”

I’m hesitant to be “all-in” on this Duke team. If it couldn’t pull through last year, why buy in now? But if last season showed us anything, it is that this Blue Devil roster—or at least its remaining core—can beat anyone, even its top-ranked rival. 

“Anytime you have the opportunity to compete for a championship, it's special,” said Kimel. 

This might just be that special team. 

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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