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California matches await Duke in NCAA tourney

This weekend, the Blue Devils are about to experience a whole new world of competitive volleyball-California, here they come.

Duke, the co-ACC champion, plays its first match in the NCAA tournament Friday at 8:30 p.m. against San Francisco in Los Angeles.

After an entire season of playing mostly conference foes, the Blue Devils (24-8) are looking forward to the challenges and excitement that come from playing an unfamiliar team all the way across the country in the sport's hotbed.

"It's really great that we are playing some opponents that aren't in the ACC," head coach Jolene Nagel said. "Our team has continued to get better as the season has gone on, and as we go into playing our toughest competition of the year, this is when we want to play our best, and I think that we have set ourselves up to make that happen."

In addition to starting the postseason, Duke's players are looking forward to playing in an environment that respects the sport immensely. California has a volleyball culture that doesn't quite exist in North Carolina or any other pocket of the country.

For senior middle blocker Sue Carls, playing in the Golden State has extra meaning, because she grew up and first learned volleyball in California.

Carls is thrilled to play what could be her last match in a Duke uniform with some support from her family and the opportunity to play against a highly regarded team like San Francisco (22-7).

"I couldn't ask for a better end to my last season at Duke," Carls said. "I'm so excited to be going back to California. I went to high school across the street from UCLA, and so playing in front of my friends and family is going to be really fun.

"California volleyball is big and there are going to be big crowds, so it's the best environment we could ask for, because California loves volleyball."

The Blue Devils have another reason to be happy to fly 3,000 miles to play again, as Nagel said they have improved throughout the season and are finally at the point where they wanted to be entering the NCAA tournament.

Friday's matchup will be seniors Jourdan Norman, Aana Wherry and Carls' fourth trip to the tournament, and although the Blue Devils haven't made it past the second round, they are eager to work hard and prove themselves as true competitors by not overlooking any match and using the skills they have used all year.

"Playing San Francisco in the first round is going to be a great challenge for our team, but I know it's a challenge we can handle," Carls said. "Our coach said it best when she said it's a new season. We are looking at it as a fun trip, but we are going to take care of business. San Francisco is a great team, and they are going to be fun to play."

If Duke gets past the Dons, it will play the winner of the UCLA-LSU matchup Saturday at 7 p.m.

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