Friday marks the beginning of the 2013 ITA National Indoor Championships in Charlottesville, Va., as Duke battles to replicate its early-season success from a season ago.
But the No. 3 Blue Devils face a difficult path to make it to the championship match for the second consecutive season. All of the teams in the sixteen-member field are ranked nationally within the top 21. Notable in the draw is defending champion and current No. 2 UCLA, which swept Duke 4-0 in the finals just a season ago.
Despite the lofty expectations and the Bruins looming on the opposing side of the bracket, head coach Jamie Ashworth is confident that team will use its knowledge from a season ago to propel it through the tournament.
“I don’t think we’ll be nervous at all,” Ashworth said. “We can use our experience from last year to know what to expect and know how the crowds will be…. If we play with a lot of confidence and energy, we can do it.”
If the early season matches are any indication, the Blue Devils have the talent and ability to make it through the field. Duke (4-0) has yet to lose a singles or doubles match within its first four contests. That includes a convincing victory against perennial championship contender No. 14 Northwestern on the road in Evanston, Ill.
Looking forward to the tournament, the Blue Devils will use the resounding victory over the Wildcats as further assurance of their potential as a team.
“We needed that Northwestern match to give ourselves some confidence against a good team,” Ashworth said. “We played extremely focused and with a good sense of urgency. We have to do the same this weekend.”
One area of concern for Duke, however, is that the team has not encountered a tournament atmosphere so far this season. The National Indoor Championships include a grueling four matches in four successive days against top-ranked competition. And last year‚ despite having nearly an identical team—the Blue Devils came out flat and came within eight points of losing in the opening round. A similar performance against first-round opponent No. 15 Baylor could result in an early exit.
Ashworth remains optimistic, though, that his players now have the experience to mentally fight through the matches.
“Last year the four freshmen were really in their first big collegiate national event,” Ashworth said. “But this year they know what to expect…. And growing up they all play in tournaments with as many as six matches in six days. It’s nothing new for them. As a team we kind of do some periodization with our conditioning to make sure that they are ready.”
Beyond the talent and training going into this weekend’s tournament, the Blue Devils also boast the intangible of a strong history at the ITA Nationals. Duke made two straight semifinal appearances before last year’s run to the championship. The Blue Devils also won the event in 2003.
Looking forward to the biggest tournament of the early season, Duke must maintain it’s intensity to walk away as champions. The resounding victory against Northwestern was impressive, but the Blue Devils must refrain from being content.
“Our girls know that this is as good as it gets when you have sixteen of the top 21 teams in the country,” Ashworth said. “We’ve been building for this tournament for the past couple of days. And I don’t think we’re at all complacent. We’re just excited to play against really good competition.”