The Duke volleyball team is looking forward to a tasty treat this weekend.
For its second set of matches this season, the Blue Devils head to the YUM Center in Louisville, Ky., the site of this year’s NCAA volleyball championships. Duke (3-0) plays Samford and Marshall on Saturday, but their toughest test will come Friday from the hometown Louisville Cardinals.
“It’s going to be a very challenging weekend,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. “Louisville is a very good team—they were picked to win the Big East conference.”
Coming off an upset against in-state rival Kentucky, the Cardinals (3-1) look strong, with their only loss coming at the hands of No. 3 Penn State. Senior Lola Arslanbekova was unanimously named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year for 2012 after averaging 4.88 kills per set last season. So far, Arslanbekova has nearly matched last year’s numbers with 4.53 kills per set. Senior Gwen Rucker and junior Emily Juhl received preseason All-Big East honors as well, having posted 43 and 23 kills, respectively.
The Blue Devils will have to compete not only with Louisville’s talented squad, but also with a raucous home crowd.
“There will be a ton of knowledgeable volleyball enthusiasts there because it’s such a big volleyball community,” Nagel said. “And they will definitely be cheering for their Louisville Cardinals.”
For Duke’s freshmen, three of whom played every set in the team’s undefeated start to the season, the first road matches of the year will furnish the type of competitive atmosphere that they will see the rest of the season.
“Our team has to learn to thrive in those environments and have fun in those environments,” Nagel said. “We have to rise to the occasion because usually as we hit the road that is the kind of environment we are going to have to play in, whether it’s this preseason stuff or once we get into the ACC.”
After Friday’s showdown with the Cardinals, Duke will face Samford Saturday afternoon. The Bulldogs (0-3) return their entire starting lineup from a team that won the Southern Conference tournament last year and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament. Senior outside hitter Elizabeth Neisler and middle blockers senior Lauren Hutchinson and junior Katie Murphy received preseason all-conference accolades, each after earning All-Southern Conference honors last year.
“They have some really solid play,” Nagel said. “That will be another great matchup and another different style of play.”
Saturday evening the Blue Devils will face Marshall (3-0)—a team themselves coming off a sweep in their season’s opening weekend of play. Senior outside hitter Katy Schad tallied 50 kills and was awarded MVP of the Herd’s first Thunder Invite Championship. Sophomore Sammie Bane received the Conference USA Setter of the Week award after averaging 10.5 assists in Marshall’s first three matches.
For Duke, this weekend’s tournament provides several benefits looking ahead toward the post season and a potential eighth straight bid to the NCAA tournament.
“There are a lot of great reasons to be headed to Louisville,” Nagel said. “We have some good quality opponents RPI-wise. But it’s also good to have that experience in the Final Four venue.”