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Duke volleyball heads back on the road after long stint in Triangle

<p>Senior Emily Sklar and the Blue Devils will look to get back on track as they journey outside the state of North Carolina for the first time since mid-September this weekend.</p>

Senior Emily Sklar and the Blue Devils will look to get back on track as they journey outside the state of North Carolina for the first time since mid-September this weekend.

Through their first 16 games, the road for the Blue Devils has had its peaks and valleys, but Duke will need to come to life on its upcoming trek to jump back into contention in the ACC.

The Blue Devils will face off against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Friday at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion before continuing their road trip at 1 p.m. Sunday as they take on No. 25 Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. Duke is coming off a disappointing weekend that saw them drop two five-set matches to No. 18 Florida State Friday and Miami Sunday. The weekend was a tale of two matches—one in which the Blue Devils trailed before rallying and another in which they led before collapsing late—but in both cases, Duke struggled to close out the fifth and final set.

“We played some good volleyball last weekend, but when it comes down to a fifth set, we’ve got to make sure we continue to control the ball like we want to,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. “Instead of getting one good pass, we might need three good passes in order to get the next point or get out of that rotation…just lifting our level of expectation of feeling a sense of urgency to make that happen.”

Duke (7-9, 2-4 in the ACC) has relied heavily on its upperclassman leadership and must do so again if it wants to regain its footing against the Fighting Irish, who have struggled early and are in need of a home win after losing their previous five home matches. Nagel emphasized to her team, though, that no conference opponent can be taken lightly.

“[Their record] means nothing to me, because I have seen night in and night out that anybody in the ACC can beat anybody,” she said.

Sophomore outside hitters Sam Fry and Sydney Kuhn head the offensive attack for Notre Dame (6-12, 1-5) with a combined 349 kills, but for Blue Devil fans, another sophomore outside hitter might be a more recognizable name. Maddie Plumlee—the sister of former men’s basketball standouts Miles and Mason as well as current center Marshalljoins Kuhn and Fry to make up the core of a young Fighting Irish squad that is just as desperate as Duke to get back in win column.

This all comes in advance of Sunday’s battle in Kentucky where Louisville (12-4, 6-0) will be a much stiffer task for the Blue Devils if they hope to return to Durham with a pair of conference victories. Outside hitter Aniah Philo was named ACC Freshman of the Week after registering 17 kills, 19 digs and a .378 hitting percentage in a pair of 3-0 wins against Georgia Tech and Clemson last week.

Louisville boasts a deep squad behind their talented freshman, though, including senior outside hitter Erin Fairs—whose 4.0 kills per game put her third among all ACC players—and freshman libero Molly Sauer, the team’s serving and defensive specialist who currently stands fourth among ACC players in digs per set at 4.5.

“I think we need to serve tough to maybe slow down their offense just a little bit, and we need to control the ball when we get a chance to touch it so we can make the most out of our offense,” Nagel said.

Finding any type of momentum has been hard for Duke, which has failed to string together more than two consecutive wins, now sitting beyond the midpoint of its season. Nagel has seen plenty of good things from her team, but is still looking for improvement dudring the last 14 ACC matches.

“I feel like our blocking in the last two weeks and our vision and our eye-sequencing have really improved and helped us be more efficient at blocking,” she said. "The one thing that I feel like we need to do a little bit better is to come emotionally ready to play and to sustain that throughout our entire match.”

Since three early September matchups in Lawrence, Kan., the Blue Devils have remained in the state of North Carolina, only taking to the road for games at North Carolina and N.C. State. This weekend will give them a chance to spend time together as a team and find the chemistry that could lead to future success.

“We haven’t had much time on the road these last six weeks,” Nagel said. “We’ve been at home, which has been nice, but I do think that getting some time away from campus and trying to enjoy each other a little bit could a great thing for this team.”

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