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UNC field hockey staves off upset attempt in 5-4 OT win over Duke

Rivalry magic must have been the only explanation on Sunday for a winless Duke team coming into Karen Shelton Stadium, scoring the most points by any Tar Heel opponent on their home field and nearly upsetting the North Carolina field hockey dynasty.
UNC field hockey players fight Duke players for the ball at the game on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020. UNC won 5-4 in overtime. Abigail Pittman


The Tar Heels haven’t lost a game at home since 2017 and remain a perfect 27-0 in their new stadium. But Sunday, in a nonconference game that carried no weight other than pride, that streak appeared to be in jeopardy.

The Blue Devils entered aware of the Goliath that is North Carolina field hockey, given the 4-0 defeat they were dealt earlier this season at the hands of the Tar Heels. But they also brought something else: a fire, ignited on Tobacco Road and exacerbated by a rivalry between two schools, only 8 miles apart.  

That fire drove Duke to score first and score fast, showcasing an aggressive, grind-it-out style of field hockey. The quick goal by Duke’s Josie Varney was only the second time a Tar Heel opponent had scored first this season. That previous instance resulted in a defeat that snapped a two-season long victory streak for UNC.

“We definitely try to not let somebody else get ahead like that,” UNC forward Erin Matson said, “especially them. We don’t want to give them any confidence.”

After the first Blue Devil strike, UNC quickly evened the score, 20 seconds later, on a goal from Cassie Sumfest off a penalty corner. The two teams exchanged another goal apiece before heading into halftime, tied at 2-2.

“We just needed to play with more intensity,” head coach Karen Shelton said. “They were out-hustling us and beating us to the balls. Some things are not complicated. Your work rate and your intensity level you can control, and Duke was far more motivated than us.”

The Tar Heels found that intensity at the half — they came out of the locker room to score two goals, both off the stick of midfielder Eva Smolenaars.

“We connected really well,” she said, “and I think we were really confident in our own abilities.”

UNC graduate back Courtnie Williamson (25) runs upfield during a game against Duke on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020.  Abigail Pittman

The second goal, a perfect reverse from the top of the circle, could have been the turning point for the Tar Heels, who held a two-point lead with less than 14 minutes left in the game.

But the magic of a rivalry game had not yet run its course. Duke continued to grind and work, and with 10 minutes left in the game, the team was rewarded for its efforts as Leah Crouse deflected the ball in from a penalty corner, dropping the deficit to just one goal.

That goal ignited the Blue Devils’ underdog fire and in the final portion of the game they relentlessly attacked and pressured the Tar Heels, trying to force a mistake that would give them a chance.

With just 10 seconds left in regulation, that mistake happened. The Blue Devils were awarded a penalty stroke. Duke’s Lexi Davidson did not squander the opportunity and expertly placed a flick in the upper corner of the goal to force an unlikely overtime.

Sometimes, though, rivalry magic falls short — the underdog fire isn’t powerful enough, and the Goliath is just too dominant to defeat.

The Blue Devils discovered that on Sunday as they watched their fairy tale ending slip away as Darcy Bourne, one of the stars of the game, was forced to sit out after receiving a yellow card.

Duke was a player down in the already physically demanding seven versus seven sudden-death overtime. The Blue Devils watched the final embers of hope die out just two minutes later, as UNC’s Hannah Griggs finished the golden goal for a North Carolina victory.

“Duke should hold their heads high because they gave us a great battle, but in the end, we found a way to win,” Shelton said.

Mary Mac Porter

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