Heading into the first match of a tough weekend, Duke is looking for both redemption and a chance to make history.
A win would not only mean overcoming a dramatic five-set loss to TCU last season—it would also mark the 600th win in head coach Jolene Nagel’s career.
The Blue Devils will face their first of three opponents Friday night at the Horned Frogs’ University Recreation Center in Fort Worth, Texas at 7. Duke will then wrap up the Fight in the Fort at the same venue Saturday against Utah Valley at 12 p.m. and Lehigh at 5 p.m. The trip will mark the second straight tournament weekend for the Blue Devils and a chance to bounce back after finishing the Duke Invitational with two straight losses.
“This is not any easier as we head on the road than it was last weekend. TCU’s a very strong team, a respectable team and it’s really hard to play in their environment,” Nagel said. “Utah Valley had a big win last weekend and we have a quick turn around to play that Lehigh match so it’s going to be quite a challenge for us.”
In last season's matchup against the Horned Frogs (4-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke dominated the first two sets and had match points in the third set, but let the commanding lead and the match slip away. Although TCU made it to the NCAA tournament last season, it has lost substantial firepower after the graduation of Sarita Mikals, who put up a 16 kills and 36 digs in Durham last year.
Just like they did against the Horned Frogs in 2016, the Blue Devils (4-2) have struggled recently with maintaining momentum after strong starts. Duke allowed both of its previous opponents—South Carolina and Northwestern—to post hitting percentages better than .300, and it could not hold on to a one-set lead against the Gamecocks. The Blue Devils will be looking for more defensive leadership from their entire rotation for success this weekend.
“The team works hard together to be a good team. If somebody’s not getting it done on one day and someone else gets a shot at it, there is really positive support from everyone,” Nagel said. “That’s what we need because not everyone can be perfect every day.”
This weekend also marks the first meetings in program history between Duke and both Utah Valley and Lehigh. The Wolverines (5-4) are entering the tournament on a four-game winning streak, and the Mountain Hawks are looking to create a win streak of their own.
Utah Valley is led by senior middle blocker Madison Dennison, who was tabbed WAC Player of the Week last week for a standout performance with 3.5 kills per set in addition to a hitting percentage of .404 in four matches. Lehigh (4-3), however, depends heavily on younger players like sophomore middle blocker Lauren Bright and sophomore right hitter Ana Spangenberg.
The Blue Devils will look to make it through three matches in two days for the third straight weekend by using a fluid rotation and incorporating players off the bench. Duke will also depend heavily on veterans Leah Meyer and Cadie Bates, its leaders on the front row. With three strong defensive opponents on tap this weekend, the Blue Devils will have their work cut out for them as they look for a few resume-boosting nonconference wins to try to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.
“This schedule is not an easy preseason schedule. It’s pretty challenging. We do that to prepare us for the ACC and also for the postseason with RPI,” Nagel said. “We have to make sure we prepare for each opponent and take care of ourselves in between matches because there isn’t a lot of down time. The team dynamic is really great, and if we can maintain that, it’s going to help us tremendously.”