A strong sense of urgency to win coupled with standout performances from libero Claire Smalzer and middle blocker Amanda Robertson allowed Duke to sweep in-state rivals N.C. State and North Carolina this weekend in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
After losing to North Carolina (15-15, 11-8 in the ACC) earlier in the season by a score of 3-1, the Blue Devils (26-5, 16-3) went into Saturday’s match with a lot to prove. The Tar Heels entered their first contest against Duke in second place in the ACC. However, as the season has progressed, North Carolina has dropped to fifth behind Florida State, Duke, Georgia Tech and Clemson.
Head Coach Jolene Nagel saw the previous loss against North Carolina in Chapel Hill as an anomaly in her team’s history and something that she was anxious to come back from in Duke’s second meeting with the Tar Heels this season.
“I think we played very unlike ourselves last time we played Carolina,” Nagel said. “We learned a lot from our first outing because we talked a lot about how we wanted to be identified as a team.... We knew we wanted to come out confident the next time we faced them.”
Duke demonstrated that desired level of confidence by coming out strong in the first set, keeping the Tar Heels to a .062 hitting percentage and dominating them with 25-18 win. After a close second game win of 27-25, Duke knew that North Carolina would be eager for a win in game three. Sophomore Amanda Robertson was focused on eliminating the Tar Heels’ opportunity for a comeback right away.
“We just took the momentum from game two and used it for game three,” Robertson said. “We beat them because we knew that they were going to come back fiery. We jumped on them early and took them out quick.”
With this mentality, Duke squashed the Tar Heels in a 25-16 win. Robertson had a team-high 13 kills and a .407 hitting percentage and was a main contributor to Duke’s overall success throughout the match. With four blocks and just two attack errors for the night, the middle blocker hit a season peak that she attributes to her deep desire to beat North Carolina the second time around.
“I knew we had to win because we were seeking a little bit of revenge,” Robertson said. “There was just this sense of urgency to finish them off quick[ly] and I just wanted to have a good game and have fun. My brother goes to Carolina so there is a little bit of a rivalry there. We had a lot of fans supporting us and it was just fun and the chemistry came together and everyone had a really good night.”
On the defensive end, senior Rachael Moss had an impressive 18 digs for the match while junior Becci Burling posted five blocks. The two players who are constantly pillars of support and consistency for the Blue Devils added in seven kills each.
The Blue Devils faced the Wolfpack (7-27, 0-19) Friday and breezed through the match without dropping a single game or allowing N.C. State to take the lead at any point during the match. Executing a high .381 hitting percentage with 42 kills and a mere five errors, Duke controlled the tempo of the game from the start. The Wolfpack is currently ranked last in the ACC and could only kill 26 hits compared to its 19 attacks errors throughout the match.
Smalzer, Duke’s defensive specialist, was responsible for N.C. State’s low success rate on offense as she picked up 23 digs in the match. Smalzer ascribes this success to her team’s ability to maintain a high level of play, even against opponents with inferior skill sets.
“We were really focused on being aware,” Smalzer said. “We were on our toes no matter where the ball went because their can always be an awkward touch that you have to pursue.”
As the Blue Devils look towards the rest of their season, they know that this weekend of wins will help them later down the road as they aspire toward major success in postseason play.
“I think the one thing these wins do is give us more confidence as we get ready to hopefully go as deep as we can in the NCAA tournament,” Nagel said. “This team has wanted to make history and I really think we can do that this season.”
Duke faces Wake Forest tomorrow at 7 p.m. in its last home game of the year.
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