“I love it,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said when asked how she felt about her team’s No. 4 ranking in the ACC preseason coaches’ poll.
It might seem odd for Nagel to “love” such a ranking when the Blue Devils are accustomed to being at the top of the conference, but this year, she said she is excited at the prospect of being more under the radar than in the recent past.
“It’s a little bit different than what we’ve had to deal with the last few years,” she said, “but I certainly think the conference is very competitive and the three teams that were picked ahead of us are going to be very strong teams this year.”
Duke began the 2010 season chosen alongside Florida State as favorites to win the regular season title. Returning six of seven starters from the year before, the Blue Devils did in fact win the 2010 ACC championship. The following year Duke returned five starters and nine letterwinners and once again sat atop the preseason conference poll.
The 2012 season brings a new challenge for Nagel and her team. But now the Blue Devils find themselves in a unique position, with a squad featuring only five upperclassmen.
“We have a lot of developing to still do,” Nagel said. “We had a significant loss to graduation—players who had played their entire careers here.”
Three members of last year’s graduating class—setter Kellie Catanach, hitter Sophia Dunworth and blocker Amanda Robertson—all held starting positions since they entered the program as freshmen. Catanach finished her career ranked ninth in ACC history with 5,363 assists, and Dunworth capped off her four years ranked seventh in Duke history in kills.
Despite these serious losses from last year’s squad, the Blue Devil coaching staff has plenty of reasons to be excited. Duke brings in five freshmen this Fall, including a trio of top-100 recruits who could form the core of the next Blue Devil championship team. Duke’s class of 2016 ranks No. 10 in the nation among recruiting classes.
“We were able to recruit some great size, and that is going to help us at the net,” Nagel said. “They are also just great athletes with exceptional skills.”
A rigorous offseason program that began in June has helped the team’s new members acclimate to the lifestyle of Division I athletics. But these freshmen are ready to do more than just learn the ropes—they are ready to compete.
After last weekend’s Duke Volleyball Invitational, in which the Blue Devils won all three of their matches without dropping a single set, the freshmen class has already established its presence. Outside hitter Emily Sklar, ranked the 28th best high school player in the nation, led the team with 33 kills. Six-foot-four setter Christina Vucich has already registered 49 assists, another team high. Middle blocker Elizabeth Campbell also contributed 20 kills and tallied 9 blocks during the season’s opening weekend.
Sklar started all three of Duke’s matches, and both Vucich and Campbell appeared in all nine of Duke’s sets during the invitational. The tall, talented trio—who all stand over six feet—seems prepared to help usher in a new era of Blue Devil dominance.
The freshmen are not the only exciting underclassmen on Duke’s squad, though. Sophomore outside hitter Jeme Obeime registered 28 kills in the weekend’s three matches, and sophomore setter Kelsey Williams stands at Vucich’s heels with 44 assists of her own.
“We’ve got some great leadership,” Nagel said. “[Our upperclassmen] are doing an excellent job of guiding those younger players and helping them along.... It’s a really exciting time for our team. It’s a great test for us.”
The team’s early success indicates that the young players have what it takes to pass that test. The promising start to the year may signal a successful transition from the heavy losses of graduation a year ago to the bright future of Duke volleyball.