For the first time in 55 years, the Blue Devils are going to the NCAA tournament.
Duke was awarded an at-large berth to the 64-team field Monday as the No. 3 seed in the Columbia, S.C., Regional and will open play against second-seeded UNC-Wilmington Friday at 1 p.m.
South Carolina is hosting the regional as the top seed and will open play against No. 4 seed Rhode Island to round out the group of teams that will compete in a double-elimination format this weekend for a berth in a Super Regional.
The Blue Devils last made the tournament in 1961, when they advanced to their third College World Series.
“I pictured a moment like this as something we worked for,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “It was never a matter of if, it was a matter of when, and I’m excited that it came together the way it did this year.”
The Blue Devil players and coaching staff anxiously waited for their name to appear in the field during Monday’s selection show, as the show revealed that several schools on the bubble received at-large bids and went to a commercial break before the team found out it was in the tournament.
But when Duke finally received its bid in the 11th of 16 regionals to be revealed, a loud cheer reverberated throughout the Tobacco Road Sports Café, where the team had gathered to watch.
“It was a little gut-wrenching. We sort of had an idea of different places we might be sent, and you start to see locations that you could be sent tick off the board,” Pollard said. “Each time a name popped up that wasn’t us, the pressure mounts a little bit, but it was so much fun to see Duke pop up on that screen.”
Postseason aspirations seemed far-fetched the afternoon of March 26, when the Blue Devils lost to Wake Forest to drop to 10-13 overall and 1-7 in the ACC. But they went 23-9 the rest of the way against a difficult schedule to turn their season around, finishing the regular season at 33-22 and 14-15 in conference play.
Graduate students Kellen Urbon, Trent Swart and Brian McAfee made up the weekend starting rotation for much of the second half of the season and all posted ERAs better than 3.50 to shut down potent ACC offenses most weekends.
“It’s obviously pure joy [to be in the tournament],” said Swart, who has been with the program for five years. “It’s kind of the goal of every college baseball player and I knew when I chose Duke, it had been a while since we’d been in the tournament, so I know my class came in wanting to change it.”
Duke won series against then-No. 23 Georgia Tech, then-No. 21 Clemson and then-No. 7 Florida State and also won games against then-No. 1 Miami and then-No. 12 N.C. State down the stretch to build its NCAA tournament resume.
At the plate, freshman Jimmy Herron and sophomores Justin Bellinger and Jack Labosky all hit better than .330 since March 26 to make up a formidable top of the order. Bellinger leads the team with a .336 batting average, Labosky has a team-high eight home runs and Herron has swiped 24 bases from the leadoff spot.
"This program is getting better and better each year,” McAfee said. “What Coach Pollard has done—all the credit goes to him. The guy is an incredible recruiter, he’s really able to recognize talent and develops players really well."
The Blue Devils lost in the opening game of the ACC tournament against Wake Forest, but they have been battle-tested in the ACC all year—the conference leads the nations with 10 teams in the NCAA tournament—and will look to continue their success against strong competition this weekend.
Pollard said McAfee will start against the Seahawks Friday afternoon.
“This past weekend, we all sort of sat around with our fingers crossed, watching scores, just hoping and feeling like we didn’t have any control over it,” Pollard said. “Our players are ready to settle in and go to work now.”
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