After winning the ACC last year, Duke has a chance to post another strong conference finish if it can win its final three games of the season on the road.
The No. 21 Blue Devils—riding a three-game winning streak highlighted by an upset of then-No. 3 and undefeated Florida State—will take on Louisville for the first time in two years Friday at 6 p.m. at Cardinal Arena.
Although Duke is currently third in the ACC and the Cardinals have dropped four of their past five contests, the Blue Devils know earning their 13th conference win on the road will be no easy task.
“They have some really good athletes," head coach Jolene Nagel said of Louisville, which expects a sold-out crowd for Friday's match. "They’re very well coached. We’re going to have to play in Cardinal arena. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
Having concluded its home slate this season, Duke (20-6, 12-3 in the ACC) will face tough road tests at North Carolina and N.C. State next week after its battle with the Cardinals (15-12, 7-8). The Blue Devils posted an impressive 13-2 home record, but are only 6-4 when playing away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.. On the other hand, Louisville is 5-5 both at home and on the road this season.
The Cardinals enter the contest ranked 63rd in the nation in blocks, compared to Duke’s 172nd ranking. However, when it comes to the Cardinals’ statistical advantages, the buck stops there.
The Blue Devils significantly outpace Louisville in aces per set, digs per set, kills per set, assists per set and hitting percentage and are ranked second in the nation in the latter two categories.
Duke hopes it can use its numerous advantages to end the match quickly in a hostile environment. So far this season, the Blue Devils are 11-0 in three-setters and 8-1 in four-setters, compared to just 1-4 in five-set matches.
One of those five-setters came Nov. 2 at Virginia Tech, when Duke lost both the match and junior outside hitter Breanna Atkinson to an ankle injury. She has yet to play since, but Nagel is hopeful the Ashburn, Va., native will be back for Friday's game.
“She’s been making great progress,” Nagel said. “We’re really hoping she’ll be able to play Friday…she’ll definitely be back for the start of the tournament.”
Louisville enters the game coming off of a 3-0 blowout loss to Wake Forest, a team Duke swept 3-0 in two matches this year.
The Blue Devils also feature strong individual performers during the season, such as standout sophomore Sasha Kerelov, who is 19th nationally with 5.22 digs per set, Kelsey Williams, who is ninth in assists per set and outside hitter Emily Sklar, who is 38th in kills per set.
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However, with only three players in the top 40 in all major statistical categories, the Blue Devils win by playing as a team, as shown by their huge win against Florida State last Thursday.
“This team is right up there,” Nagel said on how this year’s team compares with past Duke squads. “Had we won the five-setters vs. Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, we would have been been tied with [North] Carolina and Florida State at the top of the ACC.”
Louisville, with both fewer kills and fewer errors than its opponents this season, has relied on air artillery from underclassmen. Sophomores Janelle Jenkins and Maya McClendon each have a team-high 315 kills, followed by freshman standout Tess Clark, who has 246. On defense, transfer from Mississippi State and junior Roxanne McVey leads the team with 406 digs and Clark leads the squad with 120 blocks.
With the NCAA Championships around the corner, Duke seeks momentum as it faces its three final ACC opponents. Coming off a bitter second-round loss to American last season, the Blue Devils are looking to take care of the games they are expected to win, like Friday's tilt against the Cardinals.