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Duke rowing hungry to return to NCAA championship in 2017

<p>The Blue Devils were closer to some of the nation’s top teams at the Princeton Chase last fall, and hope to continue improving in Cooke Carcagno’s second year.</p>

The Blue Devils were closer to some of the nation’s top teams at the Princeton Chase last fall, and hope to continue improving in Cooke Carcagno’s second year.

A year after making their first-ever appearance at the NCAA championship, the Blue Devils are trying to show that their performance was not a fluke and was not dependent on last year’s senior stars Alex Stonehill and Katie Dukovich.

And with a roster featuring 17 freshmen who will have the chance to learn from Duke’s returners, second-year head coach Megan Cooke Carcagno’s plan seems to be right on track heading into the spring.

The ACC Coach of the Year last season, Cooke Carcagno demanded more commitment from the Blue Devils when she arrived, resulting in a sizable number of departures from the program. However, Duke’s remaining competitors responded to the shift in mentality, grabbing second at the ACC championship and immediately taking the program to new heights.

The Blue Devils placed 17th at the NCAA championship last year, and enter this season trying to close the gap on the nation’s best programs. Duke appeared to do that when its top varsity-eight boat took fifth out of 59 competitors at the Princeton Chase in late October, but the Blue Devils will now get to see whether they can continue reeling in top competition.

“We’ve made up a lot of ground on Princeton, Yale, Brown and [Virginia], and I was really happy to see our [top eight] place in the top five with those teams,” Cooke Caracagno said in the fall. “That’s fast company. This is a good place to check in with what we are doing, and where our heads are at.”

With her first recruiting class now on campus, Cooke Carcagno’s program is rapidly taking shape. After focusing much of her attention last year on getting to know her new team, the former Wisconsin associate head coach and her staff have been able to focus more on building the team’s foundation.

Last year, Duke’s upperclassmen noted the shift to more specialized training with Cooke Carcagno and assistant coach Chase Graham was making its mark—a trend that has continued into year two.

“This year, we were able to hit the ground running and already be able to compare what we’re doing now and what we did a year ago,” Cooke Carcagno said. “The girls also know me better, know my expectations, there’s less of a getting-to-know-you, honeymoon phase.”

Although the Blue Devil roster is filled with new faces, Duke’s competitive boats in the fall relied on returning talent that had been in the program. The team’s top V8 and varsity-four boats took second at the Rivanna Romp in Charlottesville, Va., in mid-November, with no rookies cracking either of the two units.

But the program’s young pieces have gotten chances to get repetitions in novice competition, and working with the older competitors during several months of winter training should help the Blue Devils’ depth moving forward.

“I’m proud of our novices getting better and our team’s effort to support each other today,” Cooke Carcagno said after the Rivanna Romp. “I think we are in a great spot heading into winter training. Now each member of our team will have to decide, ‘Do I want to be okay?’ or, ‘Do I want to be great? Like top-10 team kind of great.’”

Duke opens its spring slate March 18 with the Carolina Cup Scrimmage in Clemson, S.C.—which is also the site of the ACC championship later this spring—before taking on other teams that finished last year in the top 15 in Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame.

The Blue Devils were neck and neck with the Fighting Irish and Syracuse entering the ACC championship a year ago and bested both teams for its historic second-place finish, and a similar effort could have Duke traveling to Mercer County, N.J., in late May for another NCAA championship appearance.

Cooke Carcagno described her first year as Duke being “light years” away from where it was when she took over. The coming weeks will determine the Blue Devils’ status coming off the best year in team history.

Winston Lindqwister and Delaney King contributed reporting.