NORFOLK, Va. — After its season ended early a year ago, the Duke field hockey team kept meeting for practice.
Coach Pam Bustin knew the Blue Devils wouldn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament – not with a losing record and a quarterfinals exit in the ACC tournament.
But for the next two weeks leading up to the Final Four, the team continued playing. It was the best two weeks of the year. Bustin told her players that she wanted them to prepare for a longer season, but it was more about planting an idea than building endurance.
She wanted them to imagine what it felt like.
“That’s when it all began,” Bustin said Sunday night, as goalie Lauren Blazing hugged her closer. “It’s been a good journey.”
The journey led to Sunday’s national title game in Norfolk, Va., but ended there with a 2-0 loss to Connecticut. The Huskies (21-4) penetrated Duke’s strong corner defense, the Blue Devils (17-7) missed a few opportunities to do the same and that was it.
At the height of former coach Beth Bozman’s tenure, Duke advanced to three consecutive national title games (2003-2005) but lost each. That third-year coach Bustin took an overachieving team back there before once again falling short left players covering their faces and turning away from the field when the clock ran out. This wasn’t part of what they’d imagined.
Bustin called the group back into a huddle and told them it was all right.
“Have a good cry,” she said.
UConn coach Nancy Stevens perhaps put it best while congratulating the Blue Devils.
“This is the hardest game to lose,” she said. “You have these extremes of complete elation and such huge disappointment.”
UConn scored both goals in the first half. Both goals followed penalty corners. Chloe Hunnable scored on a rebound in the 23rd minute, and six minutes later Mckenzie Townsend scored on a deflected shot over Blazing’s pad.
Duke outnumbered the Huskies 10-6 on penalty corners. But UConn goalie Sarah Mansfield made pad saves on three of them, and Duke couldn’t convert on the others.
“We have to execute on our corner situations because it’s difficult to generate attack when they have a goalie like her,” Bustin said. “We didn’t execute on our opportunities.”
This Duke squad had eight seniors, led by Emmie Le Marchand, who had more than twice the number of points (48) than the next Blue Devil. But after she had a goal and an assist Friday in a semifinals victory over top-ranked Maryland on Friday, UConn held Marchand to two shots, neither on goal.
Afterward, she reflected on a season of fun. The latest example came before the title game, when the Blue Devils sang the national anthem in the locker room. They knew it wasn’t going to be played again outside following the Division II and III title games, and “we have a pretty good choir.”
“You won’t ever beat the love that our team has,” she said. “I’m not going to play with this group again, and that’s heartbreaking.
“It’s horrible to fall at the last hurdle, but the journey getting here was unbelievable.”
Goalie Blazing, a redshirt sophomore, says the committed-but-fun culture the seniors helped Bustin develop won’t leave with them.
“We’ve talked a lot about the work our team started putting in immediately after the end of the last season, how every single person has bought into doing more work,” she said. “I think we’re ready to go for next year starting now.”