DURHAM - On Friday's Senior Night, in this most bizarre of seasons, Carolina 'hosted' Duke at Duke's Williams Field at Jack Katz Stadium in a top-five matchup. The no. 2 Blue Devils and no. 5 Tar Heels came in to the match with identical 3-2 conference records, so this match would help define the crowded ACC standings ahead of the conference tournament.
Carolina's lone senior Gab Major was feted before the game, and then the battle got underway. Duke took a 2-0 lead into halftime thanks to scores from Alyssa Chillano off penalty corners. Though the Tar Heels would total three times as many shots as their opponents, it was Duke that found ways to execute.
The Tar Heels' Eef Andriessen put her team within one early in the second half, but Duke struck right back with a Rose Tynan goal on a counter-attack. The Blue Devils enjoyed a two-goal margin for much of the second stanza. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels were forcing the issue, drawing six penalty corners in a ten-minute stretch, though still unable to solve Duke's Amanda Hendry.
Finally, after a late Tar Heel time out, head coach Karen Shelton pulled goalkeeper Sammi Steele for an extra attacker. The Tar Heels' Eva Van't Hoog did her best to make plays for her team, and Major too came forward to draw a penalty corner.
With the offensive pressure turned up, Carolina's Feline Guenther found the back of the net off a rebound with just under five minutes to play. The Tar Heels kept the pressure up late but the Blue Devils were able to salt the final seconds away for a 3-2 win.
Despite the valiant comeback effort, Major was not in a sentimental mood following the match. "I thought we played a good game. We out-statted them, but in the end it doesn't really matter if we don't come away with the win," she said. "So we can't be too happy."
The difference was in finishing, Major said. "Obviously, we had more shots, but we didn't put them in the net. That's kind of where we fell short."
And Major herself dealt with the complicated emotions of Senior Night with a loss on an opponents' field. "It's hard," she said. "It's not our home field, it's not a traditional Senior Night, but the team had a really nice thing for me in the beginning, so I was appreciative of that, but yeah, it sucks."
Her head coach was able to provide some perspective. "[Gab]'s terrific," Shelton said, "and she's been a great leader this fall, in this unusual year. We're grateful for her leadership, and she was busting her tail out there and she made some things happen late when we pulled the keeper. I think she got a big penalty corner for us. She continues to lead all over for us, in the locker room and on the field."
Shelton was appreciative of the crowd that trekked to Durham to support her team on this night and all season long. "A great atmosphere for intercollegiate hockey. It's the best crowd we've had all year, no matter who we've played. Under the lights at both of our home fields," she said with a laugh, "it's kind of ironic, but it was a fun game for everybody to be a part of. It's just heartbreaking to lose, because they want it so bad."
Carolina will close out the regular season with a trip to Liberty next Sunday, then prep for what is sure to be a competitive postseason. "We're one of those teams that on any given day, we can win," Shelton said. "If they're no. 2 in the country, I think at times we out-played them, so that's the upside of this game. The downside is the disappointing loss to our arch-rival."
Photos by Turner Walston