The Blue Devils found a way to survive in Evanston, Ill., Sunday, and they will need that resolve again this weekend against the defending national champions.
No. 14 Duke travels to Madison, Wis., Friday to participate in the 2016 ITA Division I National Women’s Team Indoor Championship at Wisconsin's Nielsen Tennis Stadium. The Blue Devils will face some of the top teams in the country over the course of three days, including last year’s defending national champion, No. 1 Vanderbilt, in the first round of the tournament.
The Blue Devils edged out a win at Northwestern Sunday, defeating the Wildcats 4-3 by winning four of six singles points after falling into a 2-0 deficit. After three doubles matches, the outcome was in peril for Duke, but the team rallied and pulled out the win.
“We needed to have a tough match," Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We hadn’t had a tough match on the road and especially with three freshmen traveling, that is important. We didn’t play great, but we competed really well. I think if we combine the two, there is no one in the country we can’t beat.”
Duke (4-0) needed to test its mettle in anticipation of this weekend's tournament, as 14 of the top 16 teams in the nation are participating. The Blue Devils will be playing the Commodores in the first round Friday, with Vanderbilt coming off of its first-ever program win against Stanford. Vanderbilt responded with a huge rally after dropping the doubles point on courts one and three to beat the Cardinal 4-1 and will be ready for the Blue Devils.
Although Vanderbilt (3-0) will be a stiff test, Duke is ready to give the Commodores its best shot. No. 79 Chalena Scholl sparked the win against the Wildcats, gaining a three-set victory after the Blue Devils fell behind 2-0 in singles. The junior recovered from a first-set loss to win, which fired up her teammates.
“[Chalena] played with a lot of emotion, which is what we need out of her,” Ashworth said. “She really got into it and was pumping her firsts and yelling ‘Come on.’ The girls fed off of her and it rose everyone’s level of play. Especially being one of our few upperclassmen, it was important for her to do that.”
Although Ashworth's squad leans on upperclassmen leadership from Scholl and senior Beatrice Capra, the younger members of the Blue Devil squad have proven themselves more than once this season. No. 29 Kaitlyn McCarthy and No. 70 Ellyse Hamlin—both freshmen—captured half of the Blue Devils' four singles points against the Wildcats, and classmate Jessica Ho almost captured a fifth but lost a tightly contested third-set tie break by a single point.
“The last three matches all had freshmen on the court," Ashworth said. “We had to win two of them. Even though we threw them out there, all three of them could handle it. Even though we lost one, [Jessica] had the opportunity to win it.”
Ashworth has heaped high praise on his trio of freshmen, anticipating the large role they will play this weekend in Madison. They handled the pressure well against the Wildcats, and Duke will need them to be at their very best against Vanderbilt. Depending on how the bracket plays out, the Blue Devils could face No. 16 Ohio State in the second round before running into either No. 6 California or No. 9 Texas A&M later in the weekend.
The freshmen will have some help from Capra, who—after being held back by injuries in the fall—is ready to return to form in the spring. In the championship round of the ITA Kick-Off Weekend against Mississippi State, the 26th-ranked duo of Capra and Hamlin won their doubles match 6-3. Capra went on to secure an upset victory in her singles match, going 6-4, 6-3 in her first dual-match win of the season against then-No. 13 Jasmine Lee.
“We were holding Beatrice back in the fall so she could be as healthy as could be come spring," Ashworth said. "When she is healthy, she is as good as anybody in the country and she has shown that. When your best worker sits at the top of your lineup, it sets a good tone for everyone else.”
Capra was named ACC Player of the Week for her efforts against the Bulldogs and will need to shoulder the load once again as the Blue Devils get set for Friday's 4:30 p.m. first serve against Vanderbilt.
“This weekend we get to gauge what we need to do to get ready for the spring," Ashworth said. “I think we can compete with anyone in the nation.”
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