- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

CARY, N.C. (AP) - Duke stands a victory over Penn State away from its first national championship in women’s soccer.

Not bad, considering the Blue Devils didn’t even make their conference tournament.

Third-seeded Duke (14-5-5) faces the top-seeded Nittany Lions (21-3-2) on Sunday in the Women’s College Cup final.

For the Blue Devils, the season will end on the biggest stage in college soccer - a long way from the 0-2-2 start to Atlantic Coast Conference play that helped to keep them out of the four-team league tournament.

“Our confidence and our belief in what we were doing despite our record at the time never really wavered,” Duke defender Lizzy Raben said Saturday, “and I think that speaks to the character of this team.”

Both teams have reached this stage recently but have never won a national title. Duke lost to Stanford in 2011, and the following year, the current Penn State seniors fell to North Carolina as freshmen.

A year ago, the Blue Devils were at the other end of the emotional spectrum, spending some time soul-searching after missing the NCAA Tournament.

One change: Duke pulled back a bit on the aggressive style that, coach Robbie Church said, left the team noticeably drained on the back ends of those Thursday-Sunday turnarounds.

“For many, many years, we’ve been a team that pressed higher up the field. That was just not working anymore,” Church said. “Finally, when it smacks you in the face that you’re not in the tournament, you’re looking at options and why aren’t we there? Why aren’t we with the elite programs during this time?”

They are now - and they’re facing a familiar opponent.

“In many ways, I think (the two teams) are a mirror image of one another in terms of the growth we’ve both experienced,” Penn State coach Erica Walsh said.

The Blue Devils played Penn State to a scoreless draw in August, and the Nittany Lions have not allowed a goal since Nov. 1. Penn State has outscored its opponents 19-0 in the NCAA Tournament.

Penn State has reeled off 10 straight wins since losing to Rutgers in October, knocking the Scarlet Knights out of the College Cup with a 2-0 win in the semifinals on Friday. The Nittany Lions have scored at least two goals in every tournament game.

“The strength of this team all season long has been the depth, and we are really proud of the players coming off the bench and strength of this 26-man roster,” Walsh said. “I feel much more comfortable than 2012 going into that national championship game with the players we have coming off the bench.”

For Duke, a key is focusing on the task ahead and not on what they’ve already done, including that 2-0 win over defending champion Florida State in the semifinals.

“For us right now, the most important thing is not to go backwards. It’s to go forward,” Church said. “All our thought process and all our energy has to be on getting ready for Penn State and how quickly we can move forward and get ourselves ready for Penn State in such a short turnaround time.”

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