With just one more weekend of league action left, the next two contests for Duke will determine the Blue Devils’ standing heading into the ACC tournament.
And facing a top-10 team in Georgia Tech to close the season, Duke will have to play its best tennis to earn its first marquee win of the year.
The No. 15 Blue Devils will open their final weekend of the regular season by hosting Louisville Friday at 5 p.m. before taking on the sixth-ranked Yellow Jackets Sunday at noon at Ambler Tennis Stadium in their second top-10 test of the week. No. 3 North Carolina handed Duke its first ACC loss of the season 5-2 Wednesday after overpowering head coach Jamie Ashworth’s team in singles.
However, since Georgia Tech is the only unbeaten team in the ACC remaining and the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are just behind at 11-1, a Duke upset against the Yellow Jackets would give the Blue Devils a share of the conference regular-season title if the teams avoid any other losses. Although North Carolina would likely get the No. 1 seed in next week’s ACC tournament thanks to its overall point differential in matches, Duke has a chance to build some much-needed confidence against elite competition.
“There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves,” Ashworth said after Wednesday’s loss. “We have to learn from [our loss to North Carolina] in understanding that we need to be tougher within the points.... We don’t need to force stuff that’s not there.”
Although the Blue Devils (17-4, 11-1 in the ACC) lost five of six singles matches against the Tar Heels, they were steady in doubles.
The senior tandem of Chalena Scholl and Alyssa Smith is 7-2 in conference play and took out the Tar Heels’ Cassandra Vazquez and Alexa Graham—who have also only dropped two matches in conference play—in convincing fashion 6-2.
The Blue Devils’ duo of sophomore Ellyse Hamlin and junior Samantha Harris has also been strong in league play with an identical 7-2 record. Hamlin and Harris have shown grit in doubles all season in matches that decide the doubles point and did it again Wednesday, pulling out a tiebreaker 7-3 to put Duke up 1-0 early.
“If we can play with that excitement, we can beat anybody in the country in doubles,” Ashworth said.
The Blue Devils will also need their best players on Courts 3 and 4 to show up in singles.
Sophomore Kaitlyn McCarthy is undefeated in conference play at No. 4 singles, boasting a season record of 23-5 and winning 18 out of 19 matches in dual meets. The Cary, N.C., native is just coming off an upset against No. 55 Graham in a tight 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) contest.
No. 56 Scholl has also been a consistent presence for Duke, dropping her first ACC match in straight sets to No. 31 Jessie Aney of North Carolina but carrying her team to wins earlier in conference play.
Although the Blue Devils were blown off the court against arguably the nation’s most talented singles lineup, the opportunity to share a piece of the regular-season conference crown means there is still plenty to play for.
“[It was] disappointing [against North Carolina], but the fact that that’s still on the table gives me a lot of excitement going into this weekend,” McCarthy said. “I’m really excited and hopefully I can put up a few more Ws for the team.”
With Louisville (13-10, 2-9) up first, Duke will look to minimize its time on the court and wrap up a quick victory.
The Cardinals have lost five straight conference matchups and will be at a significant talent disadvantage on almost every court.
But if the Blue Devils are not focused and let Louisville hang around, it could cost them a shot at a piece of the regular season title in their finale against a deep Georgia Tech squad that is one of the few ACC teams capable of matching Duke’s depth.
The Yellow Jackets’ tandem of Paige Hourigan and Kenya Jones have wreaked havoc in doubles, going 10-1 in conference play and holding their opponents to three or fewer points in their last five contests. With Duke’s top-court counterpart of No. 45 McCarthy and freshman Meible Chi on a three-match skid, Georgia Tech’s best doubles team could easily put the road team in the driver’s seat for the doubles point.
The Yellow Jackets are just as strong in singles.
Georgia Tech (22-2, 12-0) has four players with a mark of 9-2 or better in ACC singles, and has consistently controlled the middle courts like the Blue Devils. Two of those players are No. 81 Hourigan, who is 8-3 against all opponents on Court 3, and Jones, who owns a 16-5 record on Court 4.
The rest of the Duke lineup will also have its hands full, as No. 36 Chi—a consistent presence on Court 2—will likely be locked against No. 93 Johnnise Renaud. Although she is not ranked as high, Renaud is 10-1 in conference play, including wins against Boston College’s Lexi Borr and Wake Forest’s Emma Davis—players who upset Chi earlier this spring.
The Yellow Jackets also boast a player who is unbeaten in league action in Nami Otsuka, who has lost just once on Court 5 this season. With both of Duke’s lower-court players—Hamlin and Smith—reeling from lopsided losses Wednesday, Georgia Tech will likely be licking its chops after using its strength on the bottom courts to stun North Carolina earlier this season.
“I told them each that they have individual things they obviously need to do better, but we have to prepare to play Friday [first], and that has to be our focus,” Ashworth said. “If we don’t, we’re going to be in a five-hour match with Louisville, and we need to be as efficient and smart as we can.”
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.