March 15, 2016
Kelci Smesko had six goals in Duke's 16-5 win over Louisville on Saturday. Smesko ranks second on the team with 23 goals. (Dirk Dewachter)
Kelci Smesko had six goals in Duke's 16-5 win over Louisville on Saturday. Smesko ranks second on the team with 23 goals. (Dirk Dewachter)

Has Duke Turned the Page After Louisville Win?

by Laurel Phahler | Twitter

Duke women’s lacrosse coach Kerstin Kimel expected some ups and downs this season.

That’s just part of the process when a team loses as many seniors as the Blue Devils did following their NCAA final four finish in 2015.

But, after seeing her team score a commanding 16-5 win over then-No. 5 Louisville, Kimel is hoping Duke (5-4) has turned a corner that breeds more consistency down the stretch. The Blue Devils, who have made the NCAA quarterfinals for 11 straight years, now travel to Columbia on Wednesday, then head to Villanova to wrap up the non-conference schedule Saturday.

“More than anything it gives us the confidence,” Kimel said. “When you can turn the page like we did Saturday and execute like we did, it’s a tremendous boost of confidence. We can take that moving forward against a tough schedule.”

This season truly has been an emotional rollercoaster for Duke. The Blue Devils dropped back-to-back losses to unranked Elon and USC, then rebounded with a win over No. 16 Penn.

Three days before beating Louisville, they fell to Georgetown, 10-9.

“We are just a really different team than last year,” Kimel said. “We were really experienced last year, and there were things we didn’t have to say or coach, kids just understood it and did it. This year, we’re less experienced and we have kids playing new roles, so it’s taken time for our team overall to adjust.

“We weren’t ready for some of those challenges when Elon and Georgetown came to town with great game plans. They played well. We learned from those games and made ourselves better.”

Kimel, in part, blames her scheduling for the midweek loss to the Hoyas, which came right before spring break during a time when students are overloaded with classwork and anxious for time off.

But, to respond with such a convincing win against a solid Cardinals squad, says a lot about her team. Five players combined to score 16 goals, 11 that were assisted, and four-year starting goalkeeper Kelsey Duryea made 13 saves.

“To play Wednesday and turn around to get ready for a great Louisville team, who came in on a great run – to prepare for and learn about this opponent in a short time and execute like we did says a lot about our potential and what we’re capable of,” Kimel said. “Now it’s building off that and finding some consistency.”

Finding consistency is especially difficult in a rebuilding or reloading process when so many of the holes to be filled are on offense, Kimel said, noting the defense is more black and white – with fewer nuances.

The Blue Devils lost their top four scorers from last year and now are led by sophomores Kyra Harney (26 goals, 11 assists) and Maddie Crutchfield (11 goals, 10 assists) and two-year starter Kelci Smesko (23 goals, 11 assists), who missed last year with a hip injury.

Through nine games this season, Duke has seen a variety of defenses, including more zone than past years before the three-second rule came into play, and that has made it more difficult to develop a chemistry on offense while learning to adjust.

Yet, in those upset losses, Kimel said the more experienced defense didn’t do its part either. That was a different story against Louisville.

“A team like Louisville demands a level of focus and attention,” Kimel said. “We had to be really in tune to some of their offensive threats, and we had to buckle down defensively. I think if ask our players in games we’ve been upset, the defense gave up some goals maybe we shouldn’t have. We knew our offense was going to be inconsistent because of some players we lost, so our defense doesn’t have room to let down.

“That was a huge difference against Louisville. We made some great stops that afforded us possession when we weren’t winning the draw for probably the first time this year.”

Duryea said she’s seen glimpses of what the team did Saturday in earlier outings, where the offense looked cohesive at times and the defense was trusting one another, but it was just a matter of sustaining it for a full game.

That becomes especially important as the competition heats up in ACC play to conclude the season.

“We’re not going to be perfect, but if we play with the heart and grit we played with on Saturday, we can go far,” Duryea said. “We just need to keep it up. We beat Louisville and would like to make that into a streak Wednesday and going into Saturday. Coming out with the same energy and focus, I think that will ultimately lead to our success in games.”

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