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Can the upstart Duke women's soccer team break the UNC stranglehold?

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Mollie Pathman has one chance left to achieve her ultimate dream as a Duke soccer player. But the senior said with this year's club she could do just that—win a national championship.

Coming out of Durham Academy as Gatorade National High School Player of the Year, Pathman, who has been with USA National teams since the under-14 level, turned down plenty of offers to play college ball in the Bull City.

"We have high hopes for ourselves and we think we're a great team," said Pathman, who chose Duke over archrival UNC—which has won 21 NCAA titles to none for Duke—and Virginia. "As a senior, every game is like your last because you're only guaranteed 20. So you kind of want to leave with no regrets."

Pathman said she loved the academic opportunities at Duke but might not have matriculated if she hadn't believed the Blue Devils could win a national title during her career. Coach Robbie Church talked her into it.

"I believed and Robbie believed we had a chance to fight for a national championship," said the left-footer, who normally plays as an attacking winger but lately has being doing duty at left back due to a concussion suffered by Tabria Williford.

"We've proven in my four years here that Duke is one of the top teams in the country. We just haven't won a national championship like Carolina (which won that 21st title last season). Of course I respect Carolina soccer. How can you not?"

Through Sunday she had two goals on the season and collected a pair of assists in Thursday night's ACC opener against Miami. She has 17 career goals and 24 assists, sending many dangerous balls in from the wings and from set pieces with her formidable foot.

Church said the season has begun with fits and starts with a 4-3-1 record, but Duke—which won the ACC regular-season title and played in the NCAA College Cup Final in 2011—will be good.

"We've played one of the most challenging schedules in the country (including a 2-1 loss to No. 2 UCLA) to this point, and I feel good about where we are," said Church, who has been at Duke 13 seasons. "It's taking us a while to kind of 'click,' especially with the final third in the scoring area, but I'm happy with everything else."

And Duke plays in the best conference in the country.

"We had nine ACC teams make the NCAA Tournament each of the past two years and only eight (of 14; Georgia Tech has no team) make the ACC Tournament," Church said. "With Notre Dame, we may see 10. And we always know Carolina is there. We have a lot of respect for their program. They're where we want to be."

As in all its sports, Duke recruits nationally in women's soccer—for example, top striker Kelly Cobb, a junior, was enticed east and south from Chugiak, Alaska.

And one key acquisition was All-America defender Natasha Anasi from Arlington, Texas, Pathman's classmate and also a member of the USA U23 team.

"Our ultimate goal is a national championship," Anasi said. "We still have that in the back of our minds, but we have to play game-for-game and grow as a team.

"We're not scoring as many goals as we're used to, but we're still doing a lot of things really, really well."

Besides Pathman, Duke has another key local product in freshman defender Christina Gibbons, who led Cardinal Gibbons High School to the state 3-A title last season.

Gibbons, who started her first six games, was a bit of a recruiting steal since the only other Top 25 team that seriously recruited her was Wake Forest.

"Everyone aspires to be (in the NCAA final)," Gibbons said. "It's a commitment and a mind-set, really, more so than a hope. You have to believe in that. I want to be hungry and able to participate and benefit the team. There's definitely a sense of urgency. We want to win it for ourselves and also for the seniors."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Against the run of play."

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