On Tuesday, senior Emily Sklar said she wanted to win an ACC Championship in her final season in Durham. Duke took its first step toward the trophy Wednesday night with a dominant victory against Wake Forest.
After losing their last two contests and four of the past six overall, the Blue Devils swept past the Demon Deacons Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, 25-23, 25-19, 25-22. Sklar put down an emphatic 23 kills to lead the Duke offense, and got help from freshman Leah Meyer and junior Jordan Tucker, who combined to add 15 kills of their own.
Sklar missed four games early in the season with a leg injury, but has made up for lost time since returning, posting double-digit kills in four of five contests. Wednesday’s effort was the outside hitter’s second game this season eclipsing 20 kills, after posting 27 against Stanford earlier this homestand.
“I can’t think of the word to describe how dominant she can be at times. She certainly did a great job for us not only at the net, blocking and hitting, but certainly her servicing and her defense as well,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said.
The first set went back and forth and was tied at 22-22 before the Blue Devils (6-5, 1-0 in the ACC) took control. Consistent with the rest of her night, Sklar came up big when her team needed her, accounting for two of Duke’s last three points to give the Blue Devils an early 1-0 advantage.
Duke led wire-to-wire in the second set, shaking off any remains of a tough weekend against Michigan and Michigan State, when the Blue Devils were swept twice on their home court.
“We talked a lot after those games. We had a long talk as a team, like ‘What do we need to learn from that?’” junior libero Sasha Karelov said. “We just worked on coverage, on defense, blocking, on just getting confident in those pressure situations.... [We had] more of a fighter mentality this game because I know that this last weekend we were just kind of going through the motions and we weren’t really fighting.”
Much of the fire emanated from Sklar. In the third set, Sklar’s 23rd kill of the night proved to be her most important of the evening. With Wake Forest (8-5, 0-1) climbing back into contention in what would be the final set—at one point closing Duke’s lead to 22-20—Sklar emphatically smashed the ball and then picked up an ace to double Duke’s lead. The Blue Devils would close out the set and the match, 25-22.
The 2014 AVCA honorable mention All-American averaged 7.7 kills per set, a season high. The performance was good enough to push her to 10th on Duke’s all-time kill list.
In addition to her on-court dominance, Sklar has also taken a leading role on the team as a senior.
“Like any upperclassman who has more experience, [my job is] keeping them balanced and telling them it’s okay to lose games, just so long as they know that no matter what, we still have to win the next one,” Sklar said. “I’d say I just came out with a really aggressive mentality after losing the last two games.”
The bounce-back effort by the Blue Devils should give the squad confidence heading into the thick of ACC play after a difficult nonconference schedule. Nagel said she appreciates the tough schedule after 11 matches because it has identified her team’s weaknesses.
“I think we’ve learned a lot over these past four weeks, even though it hasn’t been the easiest road to travel,” Nagel said. “I think that we’re going to benefit from it down the road. I was excited for them to get this win tonight in order to just gain some confidence and everything after playing some really tough competition along the way.”
Duke has only one day of recovery before Virginia makes the journey to Durham for a 6:30 p.m. match against the Blue Devils Friday.
“We need to get ready quickly,” Nagel said. “They’re going to be strong this year and they’re going to be a very strong opponent for us. Luckily, we will be home in Cameron. Hopefully, we can get some rest tonight so we can get a quality practice in tomorrow before seeing them on Friday.”