With experience comes wisdom. For the Blue Devils, experience will also mean higher expectations.
Duke enters the season with 13 returning players looking to regain the form that helped it rise to the top of the ACC in 2013. The Blue Devils fell short during their 2014 season in their bid to repeat as conference champions, but with talent up and down the roster, they have their sights set on returning to the top.
“I think we do have really high expectations of ourselves, but I think that it’s a good thing. It’ll really push us,” senior Emily Sklar said. “With a younger team you don’t really know what to expect…. But with so many people returning, you think they will be better than last year because they are just the same people, but improving on what they had last year.”
For head coach Jolene Nagel, this is the first time in a few seasons that she has the chance to mold a more veteran team, which has shown her more consistency in preseason practice.
“I didn’t realize we were a little bit young the past couple of years but I guess we were,” Nagel said. “We are more mature, which is what you really want to see. I’m seeing us go through our drills and play a little bit and I’m not seeing necessarily the same mistakes. It’s better.”
A season ago, the Blue Devils finished 22-8—good for third in the ACC—but were sent home in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the hands of Hawaii.
Juniors Sasha Karelov, Jordan Tucker and Alyse Whitaker saw plenty of playing time as sophomores last year, giving the team a strong nucleus to place around Sklar, whose 436 kills earned her honorable mention All-America honors and a first team All-ACC selection in 2014. Although there were learning moments at times, the minutes the trio logged on the court will prove valuable as leaders on this year’s team.
“I just feel so much more like relaxed, confident. The ball is almost coming slower, I feel, because I’m used to focusing for so long,” Karelov said. “I feel like I’ve just seen all these balls before, and I can do it again.”
A more experienced team also has a better grasp of the system and how to operate in order to be as successful as possible. Nagel said she spotted changes in the way the team has prepared for the season, in particular the team’s fitness when the Blue Devils returned to Durham for the second summer session which let the coaching staff get ahead in the training timetable.
In addition to on-court performance, another benefit of veteran presence is better communication. Players are speaking up, calling for balls, and working together within the system, Nagel said.
“People are comfortable talking out there and really stepping up,” Sklar said. “If one person’s having a rough game, we have so many people comfortable [saying] ‘Hey, let’s step it up,’ and really take charge.”
While having so many returners does offer many benefits, it does not mean Duke will not miss the players that graduated last year, in particular Jeme Obeime. Without the former first team All-ACC outside hitter opposite Sklar, the Blue Devils are looking for ways to replace her production from a standout senior year in which the Carmel, Ind., native recorded career-bests in kills, digs and blocks.
“It’s just weird that [Jeme is] not here,” junior middle blocker Jordan Tucker said. “I’m always like, ‘Wait, where’s Jeme?’ Just because I’m used to it—her and Kelsey [Williams] were a huge part of me being comfortable here, me loving it here.”
Although Nagel will miss the prolific play of Obeime—who ranks sixth all-time in program history with 1,308 kills—she did not seem too worried about how to fill the gap with the regular season just around the corner.
“It’s tough to replace a Jeme Obeime because she was so explosive,” Nagel said. “But I think with the people we have playing our outside hitting positions we’re going to be able to fill that in. We have Emily, Breanna [Atkinson], Cadie [Bates], and a new freshman named Jessi [Bartholomew]. I think we’re going to be okay.”
Team chemistry has quickly developed with the 13 returners, and the Blue Devils have also woven their three newcomers into the fold. The early reviews on the freshmen—Bartholomew, Kelli Kalinoski and Leah Meyer—have been encouraging from both players and coaches alike, not just for their on-court skills but their approach to adjusting to the college game.
“[The freshmen] are really talented, which is always great,” Sklar said. “But it’s really exciting to see that they are not the typical nervous freshmen that you see when they come in, who are afraid to talk and are timid.”
If the Blue Devils can find a consistent offensive threat to replace the hole left by Obeime and take some of the pressure off of Sklar, Duke could be poised to make another run at a conference crown.
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