With four shutouts in a row and a 3-0-1 record the past two weeks, Duke is playing its best soccer of the season.
Will it be enough?
The Blue Devils travel to Chapel Hill Tuesday to take on third-ranked North Carolina at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals of the ACC Men’s Soccer Championship. As is usually the case when these rivals meet, there’s more on the line than just local bragging rights.
The winner advances to Friday’s ACC tournament semifinals at Germantown, Md., against either third-seeded Wake Forest or sixth-seeded Virginia.
UNC (14-2-1, 6-1-1 ACC), which beat Duke 2-1 in overtime during the regular season, finished in a tie with Maryland for first place in the ACC but ended up the second seed because of a head-to-head loss to the Terrapins. Duke (8-7-2, 3-4-1) finished in a tie with Virginia but drew the seventh seed with a loss to the Cavaliers.
However, Duke has surged lately, picking up an ACC road win at Virginia Tech, nonconference home wins over Davidson and Southern Illinois, and a 0-0 tie at Elon. At the time, SIU was No. 23 in the weekly RPI ratings, while Elon was 28th.
As a result, the Blue Devils have climbed from 62nd to 42nd in RPI and put themselves into consideration for at least an at-large berth in the 48-team field for the NCAA tournament.
“This is probably the best stretch of the season for us,” Duke coach John Kerr said Monday. “The team has finished the season very strong and gotten the results we needed. This game has huge ramifications for an NCAA bid.”
The Blue Devils have done it with airtight goalkeeping from senior James Belshaw.
“We’re confident we can defend,” Kerr said. “We’ve only let in 12 goals all year, but mind you North Carolina has let in only four goals.”
Duke is also finding more offense lately. Freshmen Zach Mathers and Luis Rendon, the latter recently returned from a nagging hamstring injury, had the goals Friday against SIU.
UNC, the reigning NCAA champion, can answer with its own outstanding goalkeeper in senior Scott Goodwin, who has notched 13 shutouts and leads the nation in goals-against average (0.24).
The Tar Heels also benefited from the return of junior forward Rob Lovejoy, who had offseason hip surgery. He has played in the last five games, logged four goals and an assist, and twice been named ACC player of the week.
“You can’t measure his value because he plays with such a big heart,” UNC coach Carlos Somoano said recently. “He gives us another veteran player on the field who knows his role.”
Lovejoy’s return has given Somoano the luxury of bringing five-goal scorer Martin Murphy off the bench.
“They can hit you from many different directions, and they’re very fast with Lovejoy on the right, (Andy) Craven in the middle and (Danny) Garcia on the left,” Kerr said. “They can all create their own shot and are very talented.
“Our big goal is, if we break their pressure, can we beat their back four?”