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An update on Duke softball less than a year before competition begins

<p>Young has already signed several notable recruits, giving Duke a top-10 recruiting class for 2018 already.&nbsp;</p>

Young has already signed several notable recruits, giving Duke a top-10 recruiting class for 2018 already. 

It has been nearly two decades since Duke added a new sport—just two years after the inception of the Blue Devils' women's lacrosse program in 1996, rowing became Duke's 26th varsity team for the 1998-99 academic year.

And in less than 12 months, team No. 27 will join the fold when softball takes the field for its inaugural season in spring 2018.

Thanks to the efforts of Blue Devil head coach Marissa Young—a former Big Ten Player of the Year at Michigan—Duke softball's development is already well underway. With six freshman recruits and a sophomore transfer already enrolled, the Blue Devils will add seven more prospects next fall before signing a 2018 recruiting class currently ranked ninth nationally. 

But, as with any new varsity program, there have been many challenges for Young in pulling things together since she was named to the post in July 2015.

"We’ve been putting in a lot of prep work to get our culture built—the stadium and behind the scenes—but really preparing our girls for what it’s going to mean to take the field for the first time in that uniform," Young said. "It’s a big honor and responsibility, so we’ve been really focused on our strength and conditioning program. We don’t have games to prepare them, so preparing mentally and physically in other ways has been our focus."

Once it was announced that softball would join the Duke athletic program, Young assembled her staff and began the recruiting process, despite the fact that her team's first season was still three years away.

As the construction on the team's new stadium and training facility started on East Campus, the former North Carolina assistant coach hit the road to pull together her first group of recruits.

"We don’t have a pool of kids that are here if we miss," Young said. "To try and build the right culture, we need to make sure the kids that are here are going to fit from a character standpoint as well as academics as well as softball. There definitely is a greater degree [of pressure] in the recruiting process here for us at Duke, but all of us are excited to be at the forefront."

In the fall, the Blue Devils' first softball recruits began training with the club softball team as a way to get on-the-field practice rather than just strength and conditioning workouts. Unlike when women's lacrosse began under the direction of current head coach Kirsten Kimel, Young and her staff are bringing in their own players rather than adding walk-ons from the club team.

Just recently, the two sides went separate ways after club softball was not able to provide Young's team with "enough consistency with practice and integration."

Now, Duke's softball team—with a seventh player on campus after the addition of sophomore transfer Haley Wymbs—is instead preparing for a triathlon this spring as it readies itself to begin as a Division I program next year.

"Haley’s been a great addition for us," Young said. "She obviously brings a year of experience that our freshmen don’t have, but also, a very humbling and appreciative attitude of all the opportunities and accommodations that Duke offers its student-athletes that she didn’t have elsewhere. I think that helps keep things in perspective for our girls and she’s already competed and gone through a season, so that’s going to help them in the locker room adjust to what’s going on."

Wymbs played in the outfield for Seattle University last season, appearing in 20 games and starting 10 as a freshman. She batted .286 and with a team-best .400 on-base percentage before making the move to the East Coast in order to play in the highly-competitive ACC.  

After a 2016 class that featured only position players, Duke will add a trio of pitchers to an already versatile squad. Of the 14 Blue Devils slated to be on their 2017-18 roster, Duke will have just one player who plays only a single position—freshman catcher Hannah Pridemore.

And despite a lack of clarity as to who will be playing where come next spring as well as a couple of injuries during the team's early training sessions, Young is pleased with the progress that has already been made.

So are the team's players, who are adjusting to being the school's first-ever representatives in the sport. 

"We'll all mix a lot throughout the season to find different combinations that work for each game," freshman catcher and outfielder Jazmine Moreno said. "But I think we have a lot of diversity position-wise." 

In early February, the Blue Devils got to tour their digs for the first time as the new stadium rounds into shape. They have also had plenty of time together—Young and her players have gone off campus for bonding activities such as yoga and bowling in addition to plenty of team meetings.

But with just a few months until Duke softball plays its first fall exhibition games in advance of the first regular season in program history, the Blue Devils are focused on making sure they will be ready to go as they jump right into a conference with a pair of teams currently ranked among the nation's 25 best—including No. 1 Florida State.

"I’m just ready to get on the field," Young said. "It really is your baby and you want to put everything into it so that you know you’ve put your heart and soul into making sure things are the best possible.... You’ve put so much time into meetings and details about every little thing and now I just want to get out and go play."

Amrith Ramkumar and Sam Turken contributed reporting.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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