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Blocking key to Blue Devil success

Freshman middle blocker Christiana Gray (left) and junior libero Claire Smalzer (right) have helped make Duke’s blocking unit one of the most effective in the ACC.
Freshman middle blocker Christiana Gray (left) and junior libero Claire Smalzer (right) have helped make Duke’s blocking unit one of the most effective in the ACC.

All it takes is a few minutes in Cameron Indoor Stadium to see that Duke is an offensive powerhouse. Play after play, the Blue Devils (19-4, 9-2 in the ACC) hit hard balls that rattle their opponents and get fans up on their feet.

What is often missed by spectators is Duke’s strong defensive play and its unique ability to consistently block opponents and dig balls from even the most uncomfortable positions.

Last weekend, Duke faced Clemson and Georgia Tech—the latter tied with Duke in the ACC standings—in away contests. The Tigers walked on to the court averaging a .259 hitting percentage but only eked out a mere .151 percentage against the Blue Devils. Duke had a combined 17 digs to match 17 team blocks provided by middle blockers Becci Burling, Christiana Gray and Amanda Robertson.

“The block is the first chance to play defense,” Gray said. “So I am out there trying to get touches on balls. But at the same time, I know that if I don’t get a touch, I’m confident that our back row will be able to pick something else.”

After defeating Clemson, Duke’s defense continued strong with Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets came into the match ranked among the top two teams in the ACC in kills and assists. Yet despite Georgia Tech’s previous hit success, it couldn’t stand up to a combined 30 digs from defensive specialist Nailah Waterfield and Claire Smalzer. Burling and Gray had five blocks each to take away a critical aspect of the Yellow Jackets’ game.

“The defense last weekend was definitely a communal effort,” Smalzer said. “Our block was setting up a strong front and helping out defense set up around it. It made it really easy for us when we took away the power shot just to let everyone dig around and I think that everyone did well with that.”

Smalzer plays libero for the Blue Devils. The libero is a unique position and is reserved for a player who specializes in defensive skills. The junior has proven to be an essential part of Duke’s defensive strategy and sits among the ACC’s best passers with 258 digs this season and 3.79 passes per game. Although Smalzer fills the position with a consistency that marks an experienced player, she came into the position fairly recently.

“Last year was my first year playing libero,” Smalzer said. “It was a big transition not hitting, but defense is equally as important as offense. I think it’s more fun to take a big point away from the other team by digging up a hard hit ball versus hitting the ball yourself.

Smalzer and the Blue Devils have another opportunity to take big points away from opponents this weekend in two home contests against Boston College (11-11, 1-10) and Maryland (11-13, 3-8). Although the Eagles and the Terrapins are ranked among the worst teams in the ACC, Duke knows that it must continue its high level of intensity and play.

“It’s important that we continue to take every team in the ACC seriously,” setter Alex Sall said. “It’s going to be another year where the first place team could have more than one loss and it’s important that we always come in to play.”

The Blue Devils play Boston College Friday at 7 p.m. and face Maryland Saturday at the same time. Along with the many kills that are expected from some of the conference’s top hitters, Duke expects yet another showing for its strong defensive unit.

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