With an up-and-down regular season behind them, the Blue Devils looked to the ACC championship as their last chance to secure a second straight bid for the national championship.
But slow starts cost Duke yet again, leaving the Blue Devils' postseason fate unclear.
No. 17 Duke finished fourth in this weekend’s ACC championship on Lake Hartwell in Clemson, S.C. Although the Blue Devils opened the meet with strong showings in the morning qualifying heats, Duke struggled to match the early intensity of its finals, as No. 11 Virginia won its 17th conference title, followed by No. 13 Syracuse in second and Notre Dame in third.
“There are a lot of mixed emotions,” Blue Devil head coach Megan Cooke Carcagno said. “Anytime you are in a position to try and capture a top finish you're always going to be a little bit disappointed, but I think, given our season and the number of obstacles we've had to move around, the boats did a pretty good job finishing at least at their seed and working together.”
Cooke Carcagno’s V8 opened the competition as the No. 4 seed, notching a second-place time in its qualifying heat of 6:44.74—just a second behind Syracuse. However, Duke could not stay so close to the top tier of its conference competition in the finals.
The Blue Devils hit the first 1000 meters at 3:12.1, just one-third of a second behind Notre Dame. But the Fighting Irish stood firm and rocketed ahead in the final 500 meters, leaving the Blue Devils in fourth at 6:27.27, behind Syracuse in third at 6:23.58, Notre Dame in second at 6:23.17 and Virginia securing the title at 6:19.73.
Duke’s No. 2 seed 2V8 also crushed its preliminary heats, notching the fastest time of the morning at 6:39.96. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, much like their top V8, their second V8 could not find that same success in their afternoon race. The Blue Devils opened their first 500 meters in third at 1:37.7, two seconds ahead of the Fighting Irish. However, Notre Dame pulled a full second ahead of Duke in the next 500 meters, sending the Blue Devils to another fourth-place finish at 6:34.28.
“In the eights it was some tough racing,” Cooke Carcagno said. “Sitting there in a position to compare ourselves to the perennial champions is really tough to do, but it just means that we're really serious about getting to be one of the top teams in the country.”
The team’s struggles in finals continued with the V4s despite a season of strong finishes for the Blue Devils’ smaller boats.
Duke’s third-seeded 1V4 took second in its morning heat behind Louisville, coming in six seconds behind the Cardinals at 7:34.15. In the final, the Blue Devils hit their first 1000 meters in fourth place at 3:36.0 and managed a final push for the finish, cruising past the Orange and taking third at 7:08.59—just half a second behind Louisville.
“I want to congratulate the varsity four on getting a medal,” Cooke Carcagno said. “That was not easy, and they were in a tight race all the way down the line. They basically lost out on a coin toss, which is always really hard, but I'm happy they were able to push it to a boat that previously beat them, even earlier in the day.”
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The Blue Devil’s 2V4—which opened as No. 1 seed—came out on top in its qualifying races, finishing five seconds ahead of the competition at 7:31.98. But Duke’s second four had a rocky start in their finals race, finishing the opening 1000 meters in fourth place at 3:40.4. Although the Blue Devils briefly surged past the Cardinals in the final 500 meters, Louisville came back to secure third, giving Duke yet another fourth-place finish at 7:21.28.
The Blue Devils’ 5th-seeded 3V8 struggled in the morning qualifiers, taking fourth in its heat at 7:16.10—just shy of a qualifying placement for a grand final. However, Duke’s third eight came back strong in the consolation petite final, placing first at 6:58.60 for its only victory of the afternoon session.
The Blue Devils finished second in the ACC last year to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA championship, and they will have to wait for Tuesday's selection show to see whether the selection committee will give them a chance at a repeat appearance. If Duke is one of 11 at-large teams to make the field, the Blue Devils will finish the season May 26-28 in Mercer County, N.J.
“Our goal is always to get better and to get deeper—to get a little more resilient,” Cooke Carcagno said. “I'm really looking forward to next year's seniors taking our team to another level, and I'm looking forward to that leadership I know they're going to bring. Our goal is always to get faster and go into these championships with an ability to win.”