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Blue Devils untested in NCAA openers

Rachel Kahan continued her undefeated streak in dual matches, moving to 28-0 over the weekend.
Rachel Kahan continued her undefeated streak in dual matches, moving to 28-0 over the weekend.

It’s always nice to be the favorites, but anything can happen after three weeks without competition. Though Duke easily outranked its opponents in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, it hadn’t played a match in 21 days prior to last Saturday’s first-round matchup in Durham.

There was no Cinderella story this weekend, though, as the third-seeded Blue Devils (24-4) swept Richmond (14-6) on Saturday and then Yale (22-5) on Sunday to advance to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

Storms interfered with Saturday’s action, causing a rain delay of more than an hour, but they didn’t interfere with Duke’s play, as all three doubles teams jumped out to quick leads and held them to earn the doubles point. When another rain delay forced play indoors, the Blue Devils were leading all six of its singles matches.

In all six first sets, Duke dropped only five games combined. Senior Reka Zsilinszka, sophomore Mary Clayton and ACC Freshman of the Year Rachel Kahan finished their matches first to earn the Blue Devils a 4-0 win and their 12th consecutive berth in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to face Yale, who defeated William & Mary 4-2 in round one.

Head coach Jamie Ashworth could only muster one criticism of his team’s lopsided victory over Richmond.

“We started off a little bit slow in doubles [Saturday],” Ashworth said, “but other than the first four or five games in a couple doubles matches, we did a good job for the entire weekend.”

The team got off to a better start in doubles in the second round, as the No. 1 team of Kahan and Ellah Nze opened with an 8-0 win in what Ashworth called “one of the cleanest matches they’ve played all year.” Nadine Fahoum and Hanna Mar took down their opponents 8-4 to again earn the doubles point for Duke.

In singles play, the Blue Devils won five of six first sets, and received winning efforts from the bottom half of their lineup, as they have for much of the season.

“The strength of our lineup has been the depth that we’ve had all year, and it showed today where those were the three matches that finished first and clinched the win for us,” Ashworth said.

The three matches he was referring to were the bottom three courts, where senior Elizabeth Plotkin, Kahan, and Clayton combined to drop just nine games in six sets, earning the sweep for Duke. Kahan moved to 28-0 on the season in dual matches this season, and Clayton’s win was her 30th of the year.

Though they knew they could not take any opponent for granted, the Blue Devils were not surprised by their smooth sailing this weekend.

“Fortunately we were more talented than the teams here, but Yale today was a scrappy team that has won some close matches,” Ashworth said. “At the same time, I knew that if we played how we’re capable of, that our results would take care of themselves.”

The road will get tougher quickly though, as the team travels to the West Coast to face an ACC foe, fourteenth-seeded Georgia Tech (15-10) May 20, in the Round of 16 at Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif.

Duke defeated the Yellow Jackets 5-2 in Durham during the regular season behind a hard-fought doubles point and singles wins from Fahom, Zsilinszka, Kahan, and Clayton.

Ashworth says it will be crucial not to have to rely so heavily on the bottom half of the lineup as the team moves forward.

“We need to get everybody involved if we want to accomplish what we think we can accomplish,” Ashworth said.

After being off for nearly three weeks prior to the first two rounds of the Tournament, and playing two easy matches in those rounds, he said the key in preparation for the next four rounds is “just making sure that we’re sharp in pressure situations.”

They’ll certainly face plenty of those as they head west in search of an NCAA title.

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