Head coach Megan Cooke Carcagno had one main goal when she took over last fall—leading Duke to the NCAA championship for the first time ever.
The Blue Devils can take a big step toward accomplishing that goal with a strong performance this weekend.
No. 19 Duke will compete in the ACC championship Friday and Saturday on Lake Hartwell in Clemson, S.C., looking to continue the program's rapid improvement in Cooke Carcagno's first season. This year marks the first time since 2004 that the Blue Devils have been nationally ranked at least three times.
And although Duke has faced its fair share of adversity—including being swept by then-No. 9 Princeton in its final regular season meet—the Blue Devils hope to be among the 22 teams to qualify for the NCAA championship May 27-29 with strong performances from their V4, V8 and 2V8 boats this weekend.
"We've finally gotten to the heart of the team, and the people who are interested in doing the hard work and having it be challenging," Cooke Carcagno said. "We're finally the real Duke team and not half the Duke team and half people who just want to be associated with something great. Everyone here is doing something great."
No. 5 Virginia is the heavy favorite in every ACC championship race having won six consecutive conference titles and earning the top seed in every race. In addition to races for the V4, V8 and 2V8—the boats that qualify for the NCAA championship—races for the 3V8 and 2V4 will contribute to teams' scores this weekend.
Cooke Carcagno said Duke will not have a 2V4 boat because its team is not big enough.
The Blue Devils—who are seeded fifth in the V8 race, third in the 2V8 race, seventh in the 3V8 race and third in the V4 race—are aware of the Cavaliers' depth after losing all five races to Virginia in a dual meet in early April but hope to close the gap between the two teams this weekend.
"It's great to have such a perennial power in our backyard. A really good measure of our progress as a team is going up against a team like that," Cooke Carcagno said. "They rarely have a bad day, especially in the championship season, and it's a great benchmark for what we need to do to keep moving forward."
In addition to earning a national championship berth, Duke hopes to improve on last year's seventh-place finish at the ACC championship. The Blue Devils are the fourth-highest ranked team in the conference, behind Virginia, No. 15 Notre Dame—which tied Duke for first at the Dale England Cup last month and won the event in a tiebreaker—and No. 16 Syracuse.
Louisville is also expected to be competitive after cracking the top 20 for five consecutive weeks earlier in the year.
The Blue Devils are somewhat familiar with the conditions they could face on Lake Hartwell after competing in the Carolina Cup Scrimmage with Clemson and North Carolina in mid-March.
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Cooke Carcagno said her teams has been trying to simulate as many race scenarios as possible in practice leading up to the event, adding that the practice time after finals week has been especially valuable.
"Once the finals are over and the students can just really focus on rowing and not worry about exams, it seems to instill a new sense of energy and effort," Cooke Carcagno said. "It's been really exciting to see the boats come together."
Following the ACC championship, Duke will find out its NCAA championship fate Tuesday at 5 p.m. when the NCAA announces the 11 teams that will receive at-large bids and join the 11 automatic qualifiers in California to compete for the national title.