A year ago, Duke entered conference play on a four-match winning streak but struggled once action got under way, finishing with a 4-8 mark in the ACC.
Coming off four straight wins to end February, the Blue Devils are looking to sustain their momentum this time around.
Duke will open league play Saturday at 1 p.m. at Virginia Tech in the Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center in Blacksburg, Va. With the freshman doubles tandem of Nick Stachowiak and Spencer Furman holding a 12-0 mark and Stachowiak winning his last 13 singles matches, the Blue Devils are hoping to get back into the top 25 nationally this spring.
“[Conference play] is exciting. It's kind of like a fresh part of the season," Blue Devil head coach Ramsay Smith said. "Everyone starts 0-0 in the conference. You've got UVA, the top team in the country, still 0-0…. Our conference is so loaded—we have so many top teams—but we also have a lot of great opportunities.”
Although Smith's team has been without 2015 ITA All-American Nicolas Alvarez for much of the season due to a wrist injury, Duke (7-3) has found success behind the freshman trio of Stachowiak, Furman and Robert Levine.
Stachowiak has made his mark on both the singles and doubles courts this season and boasts a perfect record in singles matches in dual meets. After finishing with the best record on the team in the fall season, the Cary, N.C., native has continued to improve and give Duke consistent play in Alvarez's absence.
Furman and Levine have also begun their Blue Devil careers on a strong note, notching 8-2 and 5-4 records in dual meet singles matches, respectively. The duo of Furman and Stachowiak has emerged as Duke's most consistent doubles team, helping the Blue Devils capture the key first point in several of their dual matchups so far.
After coming to Duke as part of the No. 3 recruiting class in 2016, the three freshmen have each made their mark on the team on and off the courts.
“The first freshman dual match semester is usually a bit tough," Smith said. "You've got to work your way in. But all three of them have been stand out for us…. It starts with the mindset they came in with: the professionalism, the work ethic, that deep desire to get better that they brought with them. That's pretty cool for freshmen.”
But the challenges of conference play can be difficult for many players, especially with three ACC teams ranked in the top six nationally.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Although Virginia Tech (4-5) has started the spring season slow, the Hokies have a few talented players that could make life tough for Duke. No. 49 Jai Corbett came away with an upset win against Texas' Christian Sigsgaard—the No. 11 singles player—in early February.
Virginia Tech also has the ability to challenge the Blue Devils for the doubles point, even if Furman and Stachowiak stay unbeaten together. The Hokies' No. 3 duo of Jason Kros and Henrik Korsgaard has posted a 3-1 mark together so far this season and will likely play against a relatively inexperienced Duke team in Ryan Dickerson and Jason Lapidus if Alvarez is out again.
Perhaps one surprising factor that could sway Saturday’s matchup is the amount of time Duke has spent playing outside this season. The Blue Devils are coming off of outdoor dual meets against Charlotte and Coastal Carolina and the team has been able to frequently practice in fresh air and warm weather this season, unlike in years past.
“A lot of times this time of the year we don't get to go outside this early, but we've had two and a half weeks of practice outdoors and we've been able to make the adjustments,” Smith said. “The tough thing is if you're stuck inside for months at a time and then all of a sudden thrown outside without a whole lot of practice it can be a bit more a challenge, but we are completely prepared and we've had more than normal practice and matches outside at this time of the year.”
After battling an injury to their top player and the growing pains of a young roster, the Blue Devils find themselves with an opportunity to keep building momentum before entering the teeth of ACC play.
“We've played pretty well all year,” Smith said. “We had a tough batch of three matches on the road against top teams that were really close—we were a couple points away from winning them. We've got a really good rhythm with doubles especially for the last four matches, and we've been really solid in all positions in singles, so that has helped us a lot.”