FINAL FOUR

Nov. 21, 2013 @ 11:13 PM

She grew up attending Duke’s field hockey camps and now Lauren Blazing is a big reason why the Blue Devils are two wins away from an NCAA championship.

A former Durham Academy star, Blazing has put together one of the best seasons of any goalkeeper in the country helping Duke reach the NCAA Tournament semifinals.

The Blue Devils (16-6), rated No. 5 nationally, will play top-ranked Maryland (22-1) at Norfolk, Va., today at 2 p.m. It’s the first time Duke has made the field hockey final four since 2006 Meanwhile, North Carolina (18-5) is making a habit of trips to the national semifinals. The Tar Heels have played for the NCAA championship each of the last four years, but haven’t won since 2009.

UNC will play Connecticut in today’s second semifinal at 4:45 p.m.

Duke missed the NCAA Tournament last season but, from that harsh lesson, sharpened its focus for this season.

“I think it’s kind of a reality check,” Blazing said. “Making it to the final four, making it to the tournament or just the quality of play we have in the ACC, it takes a ton of work. As soon as we didn’t make the tournament last year, the very next day we were out there practicing. We were ready to go this fall. We put in the effort.”

Blazing is fifth in the country in save percentage (79.5 percent), which is a major reason Duke has held opponents to one or zero goals in 14 of 22 games this season.

“There has been a lot of great improvement for Lauren this year,” Duke coach Pam Bustin said. “Obviously she is a great athlete and a great student of the game. She takes ownership of understanding the game of field hockey and not just being a goalkeeper. She makes decisions quicker and understands her teammates and that gives her the edge to make some great saves.”

Duke has already lost twice to Maryland this month. The Terrapins won 5-1 at Duke Nov. 2. Six days later in the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils pushed Maryland to overtime before losing 3-2.

North Carolina has lost in the final each of the past three years, but coach Karen Shelton said there’s no pressure on this year’s group to bring home the title.

“I’ve always felt that if you make it to the final four you’ve had a great year, and you can relax,” said Shelton, who has won six national championships. “And so we’re excited to play, it takes a lot of pressure off, and we’re going in just feeling good and confident and we’re going to have fun.”

After winning it all in 2009, the Tar Heels fell in the final to Maryland in 2010 and 2011 and to Syracuse last season.

“This team’s never lost a final,” Shelton said. “This team is happy to be in a semifinal. I know people from the outside view it differently, but this is a different team than last year, and the year before and the year before that. We don’t worry about what happened in the past. We just think about what’s going to happen on Friday night.”

Like most UNC teams, the strengths of this year’s group are its defense and its passing. The Tar Heels have also beaten Connecticut 2-1 on Oct. 26 on the same field where today’s meeting will occur, and 4-3 in double overtime in a 2011 NCAA Tournament semifinal.

The Tar Heels are led by National Field Hockey Coaches Association South Region Player of the Year Emily Wold, a sophomore midfielder from Freehold, N.J., who leads the nation is assists (23) and is second on the team in points (35).

Joining her on the NFHCA first team were junior Charlotte Craddock from Wolverhampton, England and sophomore Nina Notman from Hamburg, Germany. Craddock is a 2012 All-America selection who has a team-best five game-winning goals, while Notman is a midfielder who leads the team in goals (15) and points (37).

Connecticut coach Nancy Stevens (570-175-24) and Shelton (568-145-9) are the winningest active coaches in Division I field hockey.

“We’re very excited to be a part of it,” Shelton said. “Our program is accustomed to getting to a Final Four, but each year it’s a different and it’s always a hard road.”