The class that led Duke to four NCAA tournament appearances, two ACC championships and a four-year record of 100-31 has graduated, but with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes for 2012, the Blue Devils will be poised for their ninth straight twenty-win season this Fall.
Duke will bring in the nation’s No. 10 class according to PrepVolleyball.com, a website that ranks incoming freshmen classes based on the ratings of over 100 collegiate volleyball coaches, which is the highest ranking the Blue Devils have received since the website initiated its system in 2003.
Although the four seniors Duke lost were part of just the fifth group in program history to advance to four NCAA tournaments, they played a large part in the Blue Devils’ recruiting success.
“We’ve been able to recruit strong students who also are great athletes and volleyball players,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. “[My previous players] have all been driven and wanted Duke volleyball to be on the map. This hasn’t happened overnight, certainly, but we’ve certainly had some great people pave the way for us.”
When Nagel took over the program in 1999, the Blue Devils had failed to make the NCAA tournament for four consecutive years. Under Nagel, however, the team has earned a bid in 10 of 13 seasons, including each of the last seven. Duke’s success since 2000 has put the program in position to attract some of the nation’s top high school talent, including this year’s highly touted class of five.
“What makes the class special in my opinion is that volleyball is always a game that relies on …people who play on the outside because unless there’s a perfect pass it’s very hard to have a middle attack,” PrepVolleyball.com owner John Tawa said. “Those outside players have the capability of terminating the ball. And in this class, you have the potential to have four extreme terminators.”
California Gatorade Player of the Year Emily Sklar headlines that group and at 6-foot-3, Sklar has developed as a versatile six-rotation player, Nagel said. As a senior, the outside hitter led Presentation High School to the Division II state championship and a 34-1 record while earning the Division II MVP award.
“Sklar will be an immediate-impact player and probably All-ACC in her first year,” Hawa said. “Her calling card is her extraordinary vision and her ability to put the ball where it needs to be put in order to score it. She’s a very low-error player.”
Joining Sklar as an outside hitter for the Blue Devils will be another 2011 state champion and member of PrepVolleyball’s top-100 recruits in the class of 2012, Virginia-native Breanna Atkinson. At 5-foot-11, Atkinson makes up for a lack of size with quickness and athleticism, but it was her competitiveness that originally caught the eye of Nagel.
“[In high school, Breanna] worked with one of my former coaches,” Nagel said. “[The coach] happened to give me a call on Breanna to say, ‘Jolene, I think she’s got it. I think she has the work ethic it takes. I think she has the passion.’ And that recommendation for me for Breanna was all I needed to hear.”
For the other two outside threats in the 2012 Blue Devil recruiting class, Nagel looked closer to home, signing Elizabeth Campbell—who played at Raleigh’s Wakefield High School before moving to Chaparral High School and leading that school to a Colorado 5A State Championship last year—and Christina Vucich, a two-time captain of Green Hope High School in Morrisville, N.C.
“We love to have local players,” Nagel said. “They bring their entire fan base as well, so that’s fun for our entire team. And it’s really fun for the player too—to play in front of people that they’ve known for so long.”
Although listed as a middle blocker, Campbell is a versatile player with a lot of power that will provide Duke with a number of options.
In Vucich, the Blue Devils welcome their first left-handed player in about ten years, Nagel said. Even though she is listed as a setter, the team hopes as a right-side hitter her 6-foot-4 stature will help open the floor.
In addition, Nagel believes the honorable mention All-America selection has yet to come close to reaching her full potential.
“She’s got tremendous upside because physically she’s not where she’s going to be in a few years,” Hawa said. “She has yet to really grow into her body. She’s still very long and very skinny, but when she gets into a Division I program and they put her on the weights, she’s going to start developing more.”
Rounding out the class, the Blue Devils signed Laura Williams—a three-time all-state selection from Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Ill. The 5-foot-10 outside hitter/defensive specialist led her club team, 1st Alliance Silver, to a No. 8 national ranking.
“Laura Williams is just a flat-out winner,” Tawa said. “She will find the court in some capacity and will contribute in a meaningful way because that’s the kind of player that she is.”
After a spring in which the Blue Devils’ returning letter winners looked to reestablish themselves as a new team, they hope the versatile incoming freshman class will mesh well with its new identity and extend their ACC-record seven straight NCAA appearances this season.
“They’re coming to Duke for the right reasons,” Nagel said. “They’re very motivated and excited to be here and want to help us to continue to march to earn a national championship someday soon.”