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Youthful squad looks to improve this season

After a disappointing 2010 campaign in which Duke failed to make the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils look to take advantage of their returning talent to reemerge as a conference contender this season.

Head coach Sean McNally thinks that pitching and defense will be what makes this team an improvement on last season’s.

“Pitching and defense for our program are going to be critical every year,” head coach Sean McNally said. “With our young guys, getting them to defend at an ACC level has been our biggest concentration [in practice]. We got a nice mix of veterans on the pitching staff and some really talented young guys. Thankfully pitching and defense are the areas we have seen the most progress in and give us the best chance to be competitive.”

Marcus Stroman, the reigning ACC freshman player of the year, will lead the pitching rotation. Last year, the right-hander posted a 6-4 record and 5.31 ERA in 57.2 innings pitched. His real breakout performances, however, came in the prestigious Cape Cod league this past summer. Playing for the Orleans Firebirds, Stroman posted a 0.00 ERA in 25 innings pitched, holding opponent batters to a .169 batting average.

“Going into the Cape I was in a different role as a closer,” Stroman said. “I was able to come in give my best stuff, but it’s just confidence really when you’re out there on the mound and you get the hitters out. I want to bring what I did last summer back here and be as successful.”

To complement Stroman, junior left-hander Eric Pfisterer and sophomore right-hander Chase Bebout will look to develop into secondary starting options for the Blue Devils staff. The duo combined for 22 starts last season, posting a combined 7-8 record. Additionally, Duke will once again rely on junior Ben Grisz out of the bullpen, and he will look to build upon his team-high 25 appearances last season. While Duke will lean heavily on its pitching staff, it also has several dangerous offensive threats. Outfielder Will Piwnica-Worms will be responsible for anchoring the Blue Devil lineup. Piwnica-Worns is coming off a career season in which he started all 56 games, posting a .313 batting average and a team leading six home runs and 44 runs batted in. Despite his offensive prowess last season, the junior will have to adapt to his new role in the middle of the lineup.

“I’ll have the same approach,” Piwnica-Worms said. “I’ll probably be pitched around a little bit and I’m going to have to be patient. I just want to go out there and see the ball, hit the ball.”

Although Piwnica-Worms looks to improve his place discipline this season, McNally stressed that his team needs the outfielder to continue to provide an offensive spark.

“[He still needs to] be aggressive,” McNally said. “We need him to get big hits and he’s got to be ready when that opportunity comes. He can’t be passive. He’s a really good player and I know he’ll find the right balance and come through for us.”

Duke cannot remain competitive based on the contributions of just one offensive star, however. Stroman and senior Dennis O’Grady will also be called upon to contribute offensively on top of their pitching duties. Additionally, Blue Devils add nine freshman position players to their roster, several of whom are expect to contribute immediately.

Despite sporting only one senior, Duke remains confident about its ability to compete at a high level this season. Coming into the senior opener, the Blue Devils feel confident that the infusion of youthful talent coupled with the return of several core players will result in a strong 2011 campaign.

“I think it’s very simple,” McNally said. “If you focus too much externally the league can be very daunting. We go one series at a time.”

Their first series starts this weekend, when the Blue Devils face a dangerous Spiders team.

Riddled with injuries last season, Richmond posted a disappointing 24-27 record. But the Spiders return seven starting position players, including Second Team All-Atlantic senior designated hitter Billy Barber and junior catcher Chris Cowell. Barber led the team with an impressive .372 batting average last year while Cowell mashed a team-high 17 home runs.

“[This weekend’s] going to be competitive,” Stroman said. “We’re going to go out there and play them like they’re another ACC team and play hard and hopefully come away with a few wins.”

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