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DURHAM, N.C. -- Kaitlyn Kerr cried on Sunday after Duke defeated Ohio State 2-1 in the third round of the NCAA women's soccer tournament. It wasn't because Duke had displayed the mettle to rally from a 1-0 halftime deficit, or that the sophomore midfielder had scored the winning goal. And it wasn't because the Blue Devils advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008.
Kerr was in tears because Mia Hamm was there to see it.
"She's been my hero for my entire life,'' Kerr said. "Having my hero be at our game was just incredible. Every time I've met her I've cried. It's just been, like, the best thing that ever happened to me."
Duke historians surely know Hamm, the Hall of Fame forward, was one of the worst things to ever happen to the Blue Devils. In 1992, when Duke made its only appearance in the College Cup and reached the NCAA championship game, Hamm and the archrival North Carolina Tar Heels were merciless. Hamm scored three goals to lead North Carolina to a 9-1 drubbing in that '92 title game. The Blue Devils haven't made it back to a College Cup since then.
This might be the year they finally return. Third-ranked Duke (20-3-1), which earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program's history, will host No. 8 Long Beach State (18-5-1) on Friday at Koskinen Stadium with the winner advancing to the College Cup, held Dec. 2-4 in Kennesaw, Ga.
None of this team's success is a surprise to Duke coach Robbie Church. He saw this coming a year ago. The Blue Devils had reached the quarterfinals last fall before losing to Oklahoma State. The team returned virtually intact, but with a new mindset.
"You could see the hunger in them," Church said. "We've been a good team for a very long time, but this team wanted to be an elite team."
So anything less than a College Cup berth this year?
"Not acceptable," goalkeeper Tara Campbell said.
Campbell has done her part, holding opponents to 10 goals in 24 games this season, including a single-season team record 12 shutouts. Campbell is fifth in the country with a 0.45 goals-against average, and Duke is tied for eighth nationally with 15 shutouts in all, another team record.
It's not just the goalkeeper. Duke has experienced defenders as well with juniors Maddy Haller, Erin Koballa and Libby Jandl playing together for three years. Although leader Ashley Rape was injured early in the season, sophomore Natasha Anasi has moved back from her midfield position and solidified the unit.
"I think the defenders on this team are some of the toughest players on this team," assistant coach Carla Overbeck said. "They know the standard that's been set the previous years and obviously they want to be better. When you have a group like that, you're not having to reteach things, and they know things from year to year to year and they just continue to get better and better."
Their teacher is Overbeck, the former North Carolina defender who won four NCAA championships with the Tar Heels in the 1980s and went on to star with the U.S. national team. She has coached at Duke since 1992 and saw firsthand the long road to developing the Blue Devils into an elite team.
"It's all about recruiting and Robbie Church and [assistant coach] Billy Lesesne are out on the road all the time," Overbeck said. "They found Kelly Cobb from Alaska, for goodness sakes. They work very, very hard and if you don't get the players, then you don't go to the Final Four, you don't make it into the NCAA tournament."
Cobb, a freshman, was the missing piece for the Blue Devils, the player who has made Duke an offensive threat as well. She has 11 goals so far this season, including the game-tying goal against Ohio State on Sunday. Kerr has been another offensive star with 10 goals this season and four in the tournament, including Sunday's game-winner in front of Hamm.
"I can't believe it," Kerr said. "I think it's a dream."
Overbeck is close friends with Hamm, her former teammate at North Carolina and with the national team. Hamm and her husband, former Major League Baseball All-Star Nomar Garciaparra, attended Sunday's match at Koskinen Stadium with their twin daughters. After Duke's victory, a very pregnant Hamm put aside her North Carolina roots long enough to give the Blue Devils a pep talk.
"Mia just gave us a little bit of advice going forward in the tournament: 'You have to play every game like it's your last, you have to give 100 percent from the opening whistle and stay concentrated for the entire game,'" Campbell said. "That was what she emphasized: just staying into the game for the whole game."
Hamm's presence also could serve as a little reminder of the beating North Carolina gave Duke back in '92.
"We definitely do have to erase that," Kerr said. "But we will this year."