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Blocking unit growing in stature

Nothing excites a team or a crowd more than the thundering sound of a big defensive block. Luckily for Duke fans and players, a strong crew of new and returning middle blockers promise to make that sound a frequent one in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

 Freshman middle blocker Christiana Gray, or “T” as she is referred to by her teammates, stands at 6-foot-5 and is one of the tallest girls signed by the Blue Devils in many years. After leading her high school team to the state championships both her sophomore and senior years, Gray was named Indiana Metro Player of the Year in 2008 and was a Fab-50 selection by Volleyball Magazine. Gray’s height—as well her rich knowledge of the game—may prove to be exactly what Duke needs to jump start its already strong level of play.

 “She does a great job, especially for a freshman,” junior middle blocker Becci Burling said. “She always gets in there and is really loud, and she’s doing great for us this season. She can do nothing for us other than improve. She is going to go big for us.”

Although Gray hasn’t gotten the playing time to fully establish her presence, head coach Jolene Nagel is convinced that as Gray practices with the squad and develops better chemistry with her teammates, she has the potential to alter Duke’s defensive schemes.

“Christiana has already made a difference in a variety of ways for our team,” Nagel said. “Her size has changed our defense because she takes up a part of the court that we couldn’t before, which is great. We want to make sure that she is still coming along, though, and learning to do new things. What her team did at club is different than what she is doing now.”

Luckily for the promising new recruit, along with the many expectations that the Blue Devils have for her comes a support system of more experienced middle blockers.

Becci Burling and Amanda Robertson have proven to be two of the strongest middle blockers in the conference. Burling, Robertson and Gray have had an impressive presence at the net with over two blocks per set and a .355 hitting percentage. The returning blockers have become an invaluable asset to Gray in her transition to collegiate volleyball.

 “[Burling and Robertson] bring a lot of energy to all the games,” Gray said. “It’s great for me as a freshman to come in and have them to show me the ropes and set such a good example. They set the tone and I do my best to follow it.”

But Gray isn’t the only one who’s taking strides to improve the Blue Devils’ game. Nagel is thoroughly impressed with how Burling has transformed her game to become more of an efficient and effective middle. In the first match of the Duke Invitational Sept. 11, Burling had an impressive three blocks and 15 kills with just one attack error in a 3-1 Duke win.

The Colorado native has picked up her blocking skills and has made them a priority. She’s always been explosive and good offensively, but now she is adding blocking to her repertoire, Nagel said.

Despite their huge success so far this season, Burling and Gray humbly attribute their strengths in large part to the relationship they have fostered between one another. Burling talked about a different dynamic in practice simply because of Gray’s size and finds dueling the freshman in practice beneficial when Duke plays its tougher opponents.

“I know that for me in practice I love going up against her because she challenges me,” Burling said. “It’s hard for me to believe that she is just a freshman because she can already do so much.”

With middle blockers in the ACC usually standing at 6 feet or 6-foot-1, Gray, if she matures the way that her team knows she can, could make the No. 1 team in the ACC that much better.  

Right now, Gray is working on learning as much as she can from the supportive group of middle blockers that are excited to add her to their lineup. Size may not mean everything, but for the Blue Devils this season and in the future, it could mean a lot.


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