With the end of 2016 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.
Coming in at No. 7 on our list: Duke baseball's late surge that lifted the team into its first NCAA tournament since 1961.
Most of Duke's sports teams are perennial NCAA tournament participants, but the Blue Devil baseball team lagged behind as one of the ACC"s cellar dwellers for most of the last half century.
That all changed last spring, when Duke made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 55 years.
Although the Blue Devils have made impressive strides under fourth-year head coach Chris Pollard, there was little reason to believe this would be the year they ended the tournament drought when they dropped their fifth straight game March 26 to fall to 10-13 overall and 1-7 in ACC play.
But a lineup change with first baseman Justin Bellinger inserted into the starting lineup helped Duke win 23 of its next 31 games to rise into the top 25 in the RPI and seal an NCAA tournament berth.
“I pictured a moment like this as something we worked for,” Pollard said after the NCAA tournament selection show May 30. “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 Devils won series against ranked Georgia Tech and Clemson teams in the first two weeks of April to start building momentum and climbing the conference standings before notching a convincing 12-5 victory against then-No. 1 Miami.
When Duke took two of three games against then-No. 7 Florida State at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in May—its first series wins against the Seminoles since 1994—its strong NCAA tournament resume was complete.
“As a pitching staff right now, we’re going to do what we need to do and we can go up against anyone,” said graduate student Trent Swart after he started the 3-1 win that clinched the series. “Our team is as confident as it can be.”
The Blue Devils' success did not extend into the postseason, as they lost their ACC tournament play-in game against Wake Forest before getting slotted into the Columbia Regional in the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 seed.
UNC Wilmington routed Duke 11-1 in the tournament opener, and the Blue Devils caught a tough break when top-seeded South Carolina was upset by Rhode Island in its first game to fall to the loser's bracket. Duke lost a close 4-2 contest to the Gamecocks June 4 to go home without a postseason win, finishing the year with a 33-25 record.
Although the Blue Devils' historic season ended quietly, they have a strong foundation in place for next season. All nine players in their regular lineup are returning, including Bellinger—who led the team with a .336 batting average and hit seven home runs—Jack Labosky and leadoff hitter Jimmy Herron.
Duke does have major questions to answer on the mound, though. A reliable weekend starting rotation of Kellen Urban, Trent Swart and Brian McAfee helped the Blue Devils win several low-scoring games during its late-season run last year, but none of them will be back this season.
Bailey Clark, who got bumped from the starting rotation after a few subpar starts at the beginning of the year, is also gone after getting picked by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of last summer's MLB draft.
READ MORE on the Blue Devils' big wins and players that ended a 55-year NCAA tournament drought:
A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:
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