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Duke volleyball opens defense of ACC crown with Georgia Tech, Miami

Sophomore Sasha Karelov has stepped up for Duke and is currently ranked 17th in the nation with an average of 5.29 digs per game.
Sophomore Sasha Karelov has stepped up for Duke and is currently ranked 17th in the nation with an average of 5.29 digs per game.

Repeating as ACC champions is certainly a tall task. Fortunately for Duke, volleyball kicks conference play off where it has been just as dominant as Cameron’s winter tenants—home, sweet home.

The Blue Devils open up conference play against Georgia Tech Friday night at 6:30 p.m. and Miami Sunday at 1 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke boasts a 21-game regular season home winning streak, dating back to Nov. 10, 2012.

“It’s not an easy thing to go on the road when you’re Duke,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. "[This weekend,] we’re fortunate enough to be home, so I think that helps us a lot, and we’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity when we’re home.”

Duke is 6-0 at home and 1-3 on the road this season, where the team faced top-ranked Stanford and beat then-No. 14 Michigan State. Part of the Blue Devils' success at home has revolved around the strong support the team feeds off of during its games. Duke has interactive competitions and free giveaways during the game, and almost 1,000 fans show up for each home contest.

“We have a real volleyball community, I think, a fan base that really enjoys our team and everything, and fortunately we try to make them want to come back and see us,” Nagel said. “We take pride in that, trying to have good attendance at our home matches.”

Coming into the weekend, the Yellow Jackets are ranked 50th and the Hurricanes are ranked 54th in blocks per set, far ahead of the the Blue Devils, who rank 194th. Sophomores Alyse Whitaker and Jordan Tucker, Duke's team leaders in blocks this season, will need to step up if the Blue Devils wants to keep its home winning streak alive.

At 6-foot-2, freshman Sydney Wilson leads the Yellow Jackets with 52 blocks in 12 games. For the Hurricanes, senior Savanah Leaf poses a dangerous offensive threat with 163 kills on the year, and redshirt senior Emani Sims and freshman Sakile Simmons both have more than 40 blocks.

“[Georgia Tech has] had their recent success,” Nagel said. “Our goal right now… is to make sure we’re blocking the way we want to against an opponent, and that will lead to our digs.”

In the backcourt, sophomore Sasha Karelov has stood out for the Blue Devils, as her 5.29 digs per set are good enough to rank 17th in the nation.

“[Karelov’s] been doing a tremendous job defensively on the court,” Nagel said. “She’s been playing with a lot of maturity, passion, and I think she has a presence on the court… I’m really excited for her to be where she is.”

The Blue Devils lead Miami and Georgia Tech in aces, assists and digs per set, and Nagel's team hopes that it will be able to extend its current winning streak to five games by the end of the weekend.

“Right now, we’re not focused on winning the ACC Championship,” Nagel said. “We have to take things one game at a time.”

The Yellow Jackets come into Friday’s game on a three-match winning streak, including two victories in the Georgia Tech Invitational, but are still looking to find their rhythm in the first few weeks of the season. After finishing 12th in the ACC last season with just two road wins, the program hired all-time collegiate great and 2013 Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year Michelle Collier as head coach.

The Hurricanes also have a newly-acquired head coach, with Jose “Keno” Gandara in his second year at the helm. Miami finished fourth in the ACC last season with a 12-8 record, ultimately losing to Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“We haven’t gotten to play [Miami] that much in their styles and everything," Nagel said. "Because we don’t have much history with them, it doesn’t give us that much information… so we need the Cameron Crazies, the students to come out this weekend.”

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