Duke, UNC prep for season with friendly exhibition
It’s not often when folks wearing Duke and North Carolina colors gather when nothing important is on the line.
Sunday, though, offered a learning experience that’s become the norm for the field hockey squads from the rival schools.
Duke and UNC held their annual preseason exhibition match in the sport, which UNC has excelled at on the national level for years and Duke made its big move with an NCAA Tournament runner-up finish last year.
The scoreboard after 70 minutes of play showed UNC with 3-1 win at Williams Field on Duke’s East Campus.
Both coaches, though, said playing a tune-up match with another team, particularly one that played in the sport’s final four last season, was good for everyone.
“It’s awesome,” said UNC’s Karen Shelton, beginning her 34th season as the Tar Heels’ coach. “I think we have a good, healthy relationship with Duke. A lot of our players know their players from high school stuff. We value this. This is important for both of us.”
In previous years, UNC easily represented the better of the two programs. The Tar Heels have won six NCAA championships under Shelton, with the most recent coming in 2009.
The Tar Heels made the NCAA championship game four consecutive years from 2009-12 before losing on penalty shots to Connecticut in the national semifinals last year.
Duke, conversely, made the program’s first appearance in the NCAA final since 2005 last season. A 2-0 loss to UConn denied the Blue Devils their first field hockey national championship.
So that represented another interesting twist on Sunday’s friendly match since it featured two of last season’s NCAA semifinalists.
“It’s always been an awesome rivalry,” Duke coach Pam Bustin said. “To have it be a respectful competition is really cool ... To come and have such a healthy, highly competitive preseason match is priceless.”
Based on the number of talented players returning, it appears UNC would have an edge this season. Having gone 18-6 last season, the Tar Heels return five senior starters in Sassi Ammer, Charlotte Craddock, Abby Frey, Loren Shealy and Samantha Travers.
First-team all-American Emily Wold, a junior, is among 16 letterwinners back for the Tar Heels. She played for the U.S. national team in World Cup competition earlier this year.
“We had a great season last year,” Shealy said. “While it was not our best year, I think we learned a ton from last year. We were a younger team and we have a ton coming back. We’ve got a much older team, which is great.”
Duke, which was 17-7 in 2013, lost eight starters, including a pair of two-time all-Americans in Paula Heimback and Emmie Le Marchand.
The Blue Devils do have 13 letterwinners and six starters back, including junior goalkeeper Lauren Blazing from Durham Academy. The redshirt junior was fifth nationally in save percentage in 2013 and was selected to the U.S. women’s national team.
Bustin will be counting on many of the team’s seven freshmen for heavy contributions this season. That made Sunday’s practice match with UNC all the more important for the Blue Devils.
“For our group, we have seven newcomers who have never seen this level of hockey and who endured 70 minutes of this kind of pressure,” Bustin said. “I’m really excited and happy that we were able to do this today.”
Lauren Blazing, whose younger sister Robin Blazing is a sophomore forward for the Blue Devils, said getting to the final and falling short of the NCAA championship has kept Duke hungry for more.
Robin Blazing said the team will learn plenty from facing UNC on Sunday.
“It’s nice to just get up against another team that’s really strong and get to play our hearts out,” Robin Blazing said. “It’s also UNC and it’s our rival. That makes a huge difference just starting off the season like that.”
Duke hits the road to open the regular season on Friday at Michigan State. UNC will open the season at home with Michigan on Saturday and Iowa on Sunday.
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels play their regular-season game on Oct. 17 in Durham. The ACC Tournament will also be held at Williams Field from Nov. 6-9.
The task of getting both teams in position to challenge for ACC and NCAA titles again this year saw important work completed on Sunday.
“It’s fun to have a neighbor that, yes, we’re going to compete when the time comes,” Shelton said, “but that we can share and work together and help both our teams get better.”