The Blue Devils capped off their first NCAA championship appearance by winning two C final races Sunday to end a historic season on a high note.
Duke finished 17th at the national championship Friday through Sunday on Lake Natoma in Gold River, Ca. The Blue Devils' V8, 2V8 and V4 boats failed to match their seeding coming off a second-place finish for the team at the ACC championship two weeks ago—which tied a program best—but the V4 and 2V8 won races Sunday to finish 13th and the 2V8 finished 18th overall to send the team into the offseason.
"This was a huge step forward for our team, and our underclassmen got a lot of good race experience," first-year head coach Megan Cooke Carcagno—the ACC Coach of the Year—said. "The next thing we can really focus on is getting good in high-pressure race situations, and especially multiple races in a short time period."
The NCAA championship began Friday with the top two teams in morning heats advancing to A and B semifinal races Saturday.
Duke was unable to crack the top two in any of the morning heats—which were dominated by teams like Ohio State, which finished second overall to California—with the V4 and 2V8 finishing third in their heats and the V8 fourth, so the Blue Devils raced again Friday evening with another chance to make the A and B semifinals.
Needing to finish in the top two in the evening to punch its ticket to the top two semifinal races and clinch a spot in the top 12, Duke's 2V8 was on the wrong side of a photo finish.
The 2V8—seeded 11th—held second place for the majority of the race before 12th-seeded Washington State mounted a furious rally to edge out the Blue Devils and push the boat to the C and D semifinals.
Duke's V4 and V8—seeded 12th and 14th, respectively—also took third in their Friday evening heats to cap off a busy first day of the championship.
"It was a lot of really hard racing back to back in really hot conditions," Cooke Carcagno said. "That definitely took a little bit of a toll on us."
With the Blue Devils competing for spots 13-24 in each boat Saturday and Sunday, they needed to finish in the top three Saturday to advance to Sunday's C final, which determined spots 13-18, and did just that.
The V4 and 2V8 delivered similar results, winning their Saturday semifinal heats by more than three seconds as the 2V8 finished second in its heat.
Duke's two highest-seeded boats built on the success Sunday in the C final races, delivering two more wins by more than 2.5 seconds to finish 13th.
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"Those were really clutch performances from those guys, and I'm really proud of how they raced," Cooke Carcagno said. "There's a ton of underclassmen in there, and those boats are only going to get better as the years go by."
The Blue Devils' V8 struggled Sunday, finishing last in its C final race to finish 18th, which Cooke Carcagno said was in part because another team broke equipment on the water, which forced the teams to stay on the lake for an extremely long time.
"Moving forward that's an experience we have to handle a little bit better if we want to race with the top programs in the country," Cooke Carcagno said.
Duke will now look to replace first-team All-ACC V8 performers Alex Stonehill and Katie Dukovic as well as the rest of a senior class that led the team to new heights in 2015-16. The Blue Devils took enormous strides in Cooke Carcagno's first year at the helm and hope to depart NCAAs with an even more satisfying result next year.
"I'm just really proud of our team," Cooke Carcagno said. "Every boat took a different journey to get here, but overall Duke is light years away from where it was 365 days ago, and I'm really excited to think what the next year is going to bring for our team."