May 27, 2011

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Duke Believes It Can Get Over Hump

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com


Without Karri Ellen Johnson, Maryland must find a way to earn draw controls against Emma Hamm (pictured), Duke's all-time leader in that category, and Kat Thomas.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- In a regular season meeting Feb. 26, Duke hung with Maryland for one half before falling to the defending NCAA Division I women's lacrosse champions, 18-11. Three months and one day later, the No.-5 seeded Blue Devils will need a complete game to defeat the top-seeded Terps in Friday's national semifinal at Stony Brook University.

The Blue Devils believe they have that compete game in them, and that they are on the brink of the program's first-ever berth in a national championship game.

"Our team is much more capable of putting together two quality halves of lacrosse. So going into our game on Friday, our plan will be the same as it was against Florida, as it was against Penn," said head coach Kerstin Kimel, referring to Duke's quarterfinal and first-round triumphs, respectively. "That is to try to sustain and maintain our game plan and our focus for the full 60 minutes."

Duke has been here before. It is the program's sixth NCAA semifinal appearance. But the Blue Devils are currently 0-5 in the season's penultimate game and the lowest seed (No. 5) remaining in the 2011 tournament. They still have some swagger, though.

"You've got to go into the final four confident. Otherwise you're not getting out alive," said junior goalie Mollie Mackler.

Mackler had a rough outing versus the Terps back in February – she was pulled from the game after 41:44 with five saves and 14 goals allowed – but Kimel said the goalkeeper has improved "tenfold" since then and has a more seasoned defense in front of her.

Originally, junior Bridget Nolan and senior Caroline Spearman were meant to be the core of Duke's defense, but both were sidelined by injuries in the offseason and struggled to stay healthy in the spring. As a result, underclassmen Taylor Virden and Lauren Martin had to learn on the fly. Virden and Martin were still at the bottom of the learning curve back in February, but now with Nolan back in the line-up (Spearman returned, but is currently out with a broken wrist), the defense has become a more coherent unit.

"They're an offensive power, and we definitely are going to have to work as an entire unit," Mackler said. "It starts in the ride, and it's a total team effort."

Containing Maryland's 15.05 goals per game average, led by dual Tewaaraton finalists Sarah Mollison and Katie Schwarzmann, will be a challenge, although Duke did well against a similar Florida team in the quarterfinals. The Blue Devils beat the Gators at home, 13-9, in the quarterfinals, and held American Lacrosse Conference Player of the Year Kitty Cullen to two goals.

Offensively, the Blue Devils will have to overcome the nation's best scoring defense (6.67 gpg) and hot Terps goalie Brittany Dipper, who had a career-high 15 saves against Princeton in Maryland's 15-6 quarterfinal victory. Junior midfielder Kat Thomas leads Duke in the postseason with seven goals, with support from senior attacker Christie Kaestner. Kaestner has two goals and five assists in the postseason and 77 points on the entire season.

"Christie's one of the best feeders in Division I. She takes risks and she's fun to play with," Thomas said.

Draw controls will be a point of contention for both teams. Maryland junior midfielder and draw specialist Karri Ellen Johnson, who had five goals against Duke in the regular season, has been out with a concussion since late March. The Terps have largely adjusted to her absence, but with Thomas (5'11") and Tewaaraton finalist Emma Hamm (5'9"), Duke's all-time draw control leader, Maryland will have to work for possessions.

"Beth [Glaros] and Laura [Merrifield] have been doing a great job for us on the draw, and we look at every draw as a 50-50 ball. It's all about hustle," said Mollison, who had four goals and four draw controls versus Princeton.

Throughout the season, Kimel has encouraged her team to concentrate on itself and to think of other teams as "nameless, faceless opponents." It worked well against Florida, the upstart darlings of the lacrosse world, who had been undefeated at home before clashing with Duke. The team plans to do the same versus the defending national champions, although the Blue Devils are aware of their history.

"It's an honor to be a part of this weekend," Mackler said. "We're not only playing for ourselves, but for all the people who've played for Duke in the past, and all the people who will play for Duke in the future."


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