Propelled by a mix of veterans and newcomers and a flash of tenacity, the Blue Devils had little trouble in critical moments of their first three matches.
But the visiting Tar Heels and Horned Frogs turned the tables on Duke with two comeback victories at Cameron Indoor Stadium last weekend, meaning the Blue Devils will have to respond to stay better than .500 early in the year.
After a pair of losses to North Carolina and TCU, head coach Jolene Nagel’s team will look to rediscover its form in the LBSU/LMU Baden Invitational with a trio of games in California against Harvard, Long Beach State and No. 25 Loyola Marymount Friday and Saturday. Last year, Duke opened its regular season in the same tournament with a 2-1 record. This time around, Nagel expects it to be a learning experience as her team aims to rebound from its first two losses of the season.
“We do have a lot of players from California, northern and southern,” Nagel said. “It’s also a great opportunity for us to play some teams that are outside of our region, which will help us get compared come NCAA tournament time. We are excited to be able to get out there and get our West Coast kids closer to home, but also to play some really good RPI teams that will look good on our resume come selection time.”
In a rare nonconference match against No. 12 North Carolina last Thursday, the Blue Devils (3-2) jumped ahead early with a 1-0 lead, but the Tar Heels dominated the next three sets—with a program-high 21 blocks—to secure a 3-1 decision. Although Duke appeared to be on its way to victory Friday when it had a match point in the third set against TCU, the Blue Devils failed to take advantage and fell 15-13 in a decisive fifth set.
In the two matches, Duke had multiple options to finish at the net but was plagued by attack errors—making 56 in the two contests—and inconsistent serving. The Blue Devils are also working through the growing pains of having a young setter, with freshman Cindy Marina as the main player racking up assists.
“We got back to really working on our serving, because that’s important for us to be able to serve aggressively, and we had quite a few service errors there on Friday night,” Nagel said. “We paired up against North Carolina with the best blocking team probably in the country right now and we are still trying to figure out our offense. That doesn’t concern me too much yet.”
Senior captain Jordan Tucker helped lead the way for Nagel’s squad with 14 kills in both contests and has been valuable with her constant coverage at the net. The six-foot middle blocker spearheaded an offensive trio alongside junior Anna Kropf and freshman outside hitter Jamie Stivers, who both recorded double-digit kills at least once last week.
Although senior middle blocker Alyse Whitaker went down against the Tar Heels with a foot injury, Nagel welcomed back middle blocker Leah Meyer. The sophomore made a statement with 10 kills against North Carolina, followed by 15 against the Horned Frogs in her return from an ankle injury. Meyer is a big addition to a young and inexperienced Duke team that will travel across the country for three games in less than 48 hours.
“We are still trying to get some young players back that came to Duke without even being able to full go yet,” Nagel said. “So I just think you are going to see a lot of development in the next few months. But we got to continue working on our offense and our ability to be strong offensively depends a lot on our ball control.”
For the first time in program history, the Blue Devils will face the Crimson (1-1), with the teams scheduled to play Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. to kick off the weekend. As the 2015 Ivy League champion, Harvard will travel to California after knocking off Siena and falling to Georgia in last week’s Beantown Challenge.
Later that night, Duke will seek revenge against Long Beach State (2-3) after a bitter five-set defeat last year. The 49ers have had a rough start to the season, losing two out of the three games at the Portland State Tournament two weeks ago. The Blue Devils’ first two games will take place at Long Beach State, with Duke’s second match of the year against a ranked opponent coming at Loyola Marymount (4-2) Saturday at 7 p.m.
“Harvard is the Ivy League champion last year and Long Beach State has a strong program,” Nagel said. “It’s going to be great as far as helping us playing teams that are going to play other good teams the entire year.”
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