The road back to the NCAA Tournament will not be easy for the Blue Devils this year, thanks to a difficult non-conference schedule and the always formidable ACC lineup.
Duke’s trip to Europe in May helped the team begin to overcome the obstacles they will encounter on that road—both literally and figuratively.
“We were together 24 hours a day, our cell phones barely worked and we didn’t have Wi-Fi,” senior captain Chelsea Cook said. “I think it really helped us grow together as a team.”
The team concluded spring final exams on May 4 along with the rest of the university. The next morning, the Blue Devils embarked on an eight-night, nine-day journey across the pond, visiting three countries in Europe.
The team landed in Vienna, Austria before boarding a bus to Slovenia, where it trained and competed against a Slovenian junior national team and a team comprised of Slovenian professionals.
Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said the team struggled initially to adapt to the international style of play, but eventually found more of a rhythm.
“We had to use the international ball, which was a little bit different,” Nagel said. “That first match, balls were bonking everywhere, and we were a bit jet-lagged as well.”
For a team that had trained hard all spring, the first result was difficult to swallow, but the group learned from the rough outing and came out much stronger for the next match.
“After that match they took a deep breath and said ‘We’ve got to do better than this,’” Nagel said. “After some good rest we got much better.”
In addition to overcoming obstacles on the court, the team also encountered a roadblock as it traveled from Slovenia to Pordenone, Italy. The bus broke down, stranding the team on the side of the road and delaying the start time of their first match in Italy from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
“We said, ‘Guys, we’re going to get you some pizza, we’ll try to get you some fruit, but that’s going to be it,’” Nagel said. “I loved how it took us out of a rhythm—everything we normally do to be well-prepared before a match—and everyone just rolled with it.”
The team traveled around Italy, playing matches in Venice, Verona and Milan. Against a youth national team in Milan, Nagel said she saw signs of great progress, noting greater composure, control and communication.
The trip did not revolve entirely around volleyball, though. The Blue Devils enjoyed a challenging ropes course in Bled, Slovenia, an alpine slide and a taste of the shopping that Milan has to offer.
“You get to see different personalities come out when you do things like that,” Nagel said. “You learn more about people that way.”
The spring training period for the Blue Devils was marred by injuries, some of which continued to sideline players during the European tour. After a breakout freshman season, sophomore Elizabeth Campbell was invited to try out for the US Women’s Jr. National Volleyball Team. Campbell made the team, but began experiencing pain down her leg. X-rays revealed a stress fracture, and she underwent surgery just before final exams.
Despite being out of play until mid-July, Campbell found the fortitude to board the Sunday flight to Austria to be with her teammates.
Fellow sophomore Emily Sklar joined the USA Women’s Junior A1 International Team for a 10-day training camp and then traveled with the squad back to Europe later in the summer, visiting some of the same cities as the Blue Devils as well as journeying to Croatia.
Duke’s senior leaders noticed a difference in the team’s play after the trip, something it will hope to continue into the upcoming season.
“It was an awesome way to wrap up the spring,” senior co-captain Ali McCurdy said. “Spring was an important part of postseason for us, regrouping and seeing where we needed to be. The Europe trip was really a way to celebrate how hard we had worked in the spring but also a way to begin what we now have with this new group of girls.”
The Blue Devils open the season in Gainesville, Fla., Aug. 30.