When Duke closed out its 2022 campaign in a loss to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament last fall, the team had seemingly hit rock bottom. With a losing record and not a single conference win, head coach Pam Bustin’s squad was struggling to make a name for itself. In the 2023 season, the Blue Devils have something to prove — to themselves, to the ACC and to the nation at large.
On Labor Day weekend in College Park, Md., they did just that.
No. 20 Duke traveled north for the annual ACC/Big Ten Cup, where they walked away having gone 1-1 with impressive performances to boot. Taking on No. 3 Maryland Friday, the Blue Devils pulled off an upset for the ages, edging out the Terrapins 2-1 with only a minute to spare. Riding high, Duke played a tough contest Sunday against No. 2 Northwestern that ended in a 3-2 loss, forcing the 2022 national runners-up to dig deep for the victory.
“We’re leaving College Park as a better team,” Bustin said. “I’m extremely proud of the preparation and the fight. Seeing the level of play that we sustained all weekend … was fantastic.”
While both contests proved the Blue Devils (2-1) are worthy of a notable spot in the college field hockey conversation, nothing was as electric as the showdown with Maryland. A mere 29 seconds into the game, the action was underway as graduate student Ashlyn Carr grabbed a 1-0 lead for the Terrapins off a pass from teammate Maci Bradford. Despite the early setback, Duke responded with a monumental defensive effort, holding its opponent to one shot for the rest of the first quarter.
By the time the second period rolled around, the Blue Devils had shaken off the nerves and were ready to fight. Graduate student Hannah Miller got off a pair of shots, sending a warning to the Maryland defense that her team was not to be messed with.
It wasn’t until the 41st minute, however, that Duke found its light in the dark. After fighting for the breakthrough, sophomore Alaina McVeigh got the ball past keeper Paige Kieft to pull her squad even at 1-1 heading into the final 15 minutes.
As any athlete knows, a goal like McVeigh’s can give a team confidence and momentum in a way that spells disaster for the opponent. Even though the Terrapins (4-1) fought to stave off this doomsday scenario, the Blue Devils were determined to cash in. After an attempt from junior Issy Carey nearly gave the team the lead in the 52nd minute, Duke’s moment came with just 1:08 left on the clock. Midfielder Logan Clouser didn’t flinch when the opportunity came, sending the ball past Kieft for the 2-1 victory.
“If [Clouser] stays locked in the way she has, her physical abilities are endless,” Bustin said. “And I think the more she gains confidence in these moments, the more we’re going to see her step up in critical moments and do things exactly like she did this weekend.”
With a big-time win under their belts, the Blue Devils were prepared for battle against the Wildcats (2-1). From the opening whistle, it seemed as though Duke would have its shot to execute two upsets in one weekend. McVeigh stepped up once more, converting a penalty corner to give her squad the lead in the eighth minute, her third goal in as many games. Joining in on the two-goal weekend effort was Clouser, who coaxed the goalie away from her cage to tap the ball in after a brilliant effort from Carey to beat her defender.
The two on the scoreboard for the Blue Devils, however, were their only tallies for the rest of the game. Northwestern began to chip at the lead late in the first quarter as freshman Olivia Bent-Cole took advantage of a failed Duke clearance to put her team within one. Now the Blue Devils were victims of momentum, as the Wildcats cashed in on a rebound off the post in the 24th minute to pull the game to 2-2.
The final nail in the coffin came in the third quarter. Dead even coming out of the locker room, it was nearly Duke who drew first blood to regain a lead, but Northwestern keeper Annabal Skubisz was locked in, making the save to keep the Wildcats in the game. Bolstered by its goalie’s performance, Northwestern made the most of a penalty corner in the 39th minute, once more knocking in a rebound after Blue Devil goalie Piper Hampsch made an initial save. Despite eight shots and five penalty corners in the fourth period, Duke just couldn’t break through.
“We knew that it was going to be a fight,” Bustin said. “[The Wildcats] know how to claw their way back and they know how to hang in there. Despite the score, I think we played a better game.”
The close loss may have been disappointing, but the weekend as a whole for Bustin’s squad was a positive sign for things to come. Outshooting the perennial powerhouse of Northwestern 17-7 and staying with it takes a level of determination few can match, while beating the third-ranked team in the country in Maryland requires a team commitment to grit.
“For me, as a coach, and as our coaching staff, we’re just so excited…[the team] can play this level of hockey,” Bustin said. “We’ve trained for this level of hockey, and this is the standard for Duke field hockey.”
The Blue Devils will look to keep the party going as they return home for a contest against Longwood Friday before a matchup with Liberty Sunday. Both will serve as preparation for Duke’s first ACC matchup at home against Syracuse Sept. 15.
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| Blue Zone editor
Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 119th volume.