February 14, 2012

Season Preview (WD1): No. 4 Duke

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com

Kim Wenger returns as part of a Duke midfield that must now deal with the loss of Kat Thomas, out indefinitely after foot surgery. 
© Pete Clawson


Reflecting on Duke's 14-8 NCAA semifinal defeat to Maryland, Blue Devils senior midfielder Kat Thomas gets a sour taste in her mouth. Thomas described the loss as "uncharacteristic, and not a representation of our character as a team."

In her post-game press conference Duke head coach Kerstin Kimel said her team "got the yips," as it turned the ball over 12 times in the first half.

"I'm still bitter about that," Thomas, who is out indefinitely after foot surgery, said in the preseason. "It's one thing when you lose a game and you're like, 'We put it all out there, we played our game, and they were a better team.' It's another thing when it's, 'They were the better team because the Duke team that we are didn't show up.' That's a really, really hard thing to swallow."

The Blue Devils must replace two key cogs in their offense, Christie Kaestner (33 goals, 47 assists) and Virginia Crotty (17g, 15a). Kaestner was the primary feeder operating behind the net with the ball in her stick on every play. She set a school record for single-season assists.

Without Kaestner — and without a player primed to fill her specific role — Duke has worked on its basic freelance offense.

"That offense is really predicated on knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses," Kimel said. "There are five or six really simple rules to follow, so we allow the girls some freedom and creativity to play, and it also gives us a chance to see what people are capable of and who works well together. In essence, we feel like we're teaching them how to play."

Duke used a different starting lineup for each of its multi-game fall tournament days, hoping to see who meshes well together.

"This team loves to score goals, and freelance embraces that — the unique talent of each individual," Thomas said. "It lets each individual bring their own swagger to the team, and frankly, that's when we play our best lacrosse."

On the other hand, Kimel knows what to expect from fifth-year senior attacker and Tewaaraton Award finalist Emma Hamm, who is an incredible off-ball threat. When healthy, Thomas, a lefty Kimel called a "handful to handle," complements Hamm. Without Kaestner, both they have worked on their feeding skills and will have the ball in their sticks more often. They're both stout on draw controls, grabbing a combined 132 draws last year.

The midfield graduated three-time All-American Sarah Bullard, though she missed seven games due to injury and Duke managed to fill her void last season. Senior Kim Wenger (18g, 21a) and sophomore Molly Quirke (14g, 3a) are back, while sophomore Maddy Morrissey will take on a bigger role. U.S. U19 team members Taylor Trimble and Brigid Smith will pack an additional punch on Duke's offense, highlighting one of the nation's top recruiting classes.

"Figuring out everybody's role and getting them all working together on the same page, that's going to be a main x-factor for us," Kimel said.

Defenders Bridget Nolan, Lauren Martin and Taylor Virden all return in front of senior goalie Mollie Mackler. Mackler missed half of the 2010 season with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury and came into her own last year, saving 44.2 percent of shots, including an incredible 20-save performance against Northwestern.

"She still felt a little green last year, and we felt like last year was her first real year, now that she had a full year under her belt," Kimel said. "She had some really tremendous games."

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Blue Devils' team page.

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