For some coaches, even early-season contests are only about racking up wins. And while no one would accuse head coach Jolene Nagel of not wanting to win, she seems to be emphasizing learning as her team gets its season underway. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that her team is also talented enough to emerge from its first tournament undefeated.
“It’s great that we were able to come out on top, even though we struggled a little,” Nagel said. “But because we struggled some, we’re going to learn a lot from this weekend.”
The Blue Devils’ first matches of the season came as part of the Duke Invitational at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the No. 17 Blue Devils (3-0) emerged from their weekend with wins over Furman (2-1), Charleston Southern (0-3), and Wisconsin (1-2).
Duke came out of the gate slowly on Friday night, dropping the first game to the Paladins 25-23, but improved their play in each game after that, with a two-point win in game two, a five-point victory in the third game and a ten-point demolition of Furman in the final game to seal a 3-1 win.
On Saturday afternoon, Charleston Southern provided little challenge for Nagel’s squad, as Duke secured an easy 3-0 sweep.
The biggest obstacle loomed on Saturday night, though, in the form of the Wisconsin Badgers. Like the previous evening, Duke struggled at the outset, ceding the first game to the visitors 25-16. The Badgers jumped out to an 8-3 advantage early, including a five-point run that saw freshman Courtney Thomas serve up four aces against the Blue Devils.
Senior captain and defending ACC Player of the Year Kellie Catanach thought nerves and a couple key lineup changes were to blame for the sluggish start.
“It’s a new team,” she said. “It’s a new lineup. So I think we came out a little tense.”
Nagel wasn’t so sure why her team struggled out of the gate.
“I can’t explain it,” she said. “I felt like we were doing some things that were very undisciplined, and so we’re going to be working on that. But once you do things undisciplined and you miss some plays, then you lose a little bit of confidence.”
The slow start didn’t last long, though, as Duke came out strong in the second game. The Blue Devils won the first six points as their defense locked down Wisconsin, and never let the Badgers back within five points.
“We’ve really been focusing this preseason on our first five points,” Catanach said. “We want to come out, jump out as fast as possible, and just go after them hard so we can get a jump on them real quick.”
The Blue Devil offense was keyed by a rookie and a veteran: freshman Jeme Obeime and senior Amanda Robertson, who each registered 15 kills. Another newcomer to the lineup, junior Megan Hendrickson, also added double-digit kills on the night.
“Our passing was on point, so we could run our offense,” Catanach said. “We just sat back and were patient and let them make the mistakes.”
Momentum stayed on Duke’s side as the third game got underway, but a 17-10 lead was not enough to bury the Badgers. A 12-3 Wisconsin run turned the lead into a two-point deficit, and though the Blue Devils made things interesting late, the Badgers emerged with a 25-22 victory to take a 2-1 lead in the match.
The Duke defense bounced back in the fourth game, though, limiting Wisconsin to a .081 hitting percentage and not allowing another service ace for the rest of the night.
The emotional fourth-game victory ignited a loud crowd, and the Blue Devils fed off that energy to build a 10-4 lead in the decisive game. Wisconsin again was undeterred by a Duke advantage, using an 8-4 run to draw within two points. Still, the Badgers faced set point, and Obeime came up with yet another clutch kill to keep her team undefeated.
While the match was a good early-season test for the Blue Devils, Nagel still sounded more focused on what was learned in the process.
“We want to be able to have some flexibility in what we do,” she said, “and we’re also learning about our players and what they’re capable of in a match situation. So I think we learned a lot. We tried some different things. I don’t know if I have a favorite yet, but we’re going to keep taking a look.”
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