Duke’s four-game winning streak may have been snapped last week, but the Blue Devils nevertheless enter the beginning of ACC play riding high after wrapping up a successful nonconference slate.

Duke will take on Wake Forest Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium in its first conference game of the year before playing host to Georgia Tech at 1 p.m. Sunday. The Blue Devils have won four of their last five matches, but suffered a disappointing loss at home to Loyola Marymount in their last game of nonconference play. 

“[These games are] different because we’re going into conference competition. They’re like turning the page to the next part of our season,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. “I’m excited about our team. They work together well, [and] they’re going to be prepared.”

As the Blue Devils (8-3) hope to get off to another hot start in conference play after eight of their first nine ACC games in 2016, one of the bright spots that has emerged early is the play of freshman outside hitter Payton Schwantz. The Frisco, Texas, native already has an ACC Freshman of the Week honor on her resume after helping lead Duke to the Fight in the Fort tournament title two weeks ago. Since then, her performance has continued to impress, as she leads the team in kills.

“[I’m] really excited with the start [Schwantz] has had for us and our team,” Nagel said. “She’s working hard every day trying to understand what we’re trying to do, but also what she needs to do. She’s doing a great job and she’s meant a lot. She’s been very consistent, and very effective, and that’s really exciting to see out of a first-year player.” 

Schwantz and the rest of the Blue Devils will have their hands full offensively against the Demon Deacons (8-4), who average 2.73 blocks per set. The team is anchored on this front by junior middle blocker Katie Moore, who leads the team with 50 blocks already this season. Duke’s own block and defensive game will also be key in the two weekend games, particularly against the Yellow Jackets, who boast the ACC leader in kills this season with 154 in Gabriela Stavnetchei.

“We need to continue to have the discipline that I’ve seen at times, but not 100 percent of the time, on our block and defense,” Nagel said. “[That] will really make a big difference for us as we go into this match.”

One of the keys for the Blue Devils as they move into conference play will be setting the tone early and maintaining consistency. In matches in which Duke has won the first set, it is 6-1—when the Blue Devils give up the first set, they are just 2-2. Against Georgia Tech (5-6), which has been outscored by a combined 59 points in the first two sets of its matches, Duke’s tendency to get ahead early could prove decisive.

In addition, Duke’s matches thus far have largely fallen into two categories: straight-set 3-0 wins for either team, or five-set marathons in favor of the Blue Devils. Although Duke has been relatively even in the first four sets this season, the fifth set has been one area the Blue Devils have dominated, going 4-0 and outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 65-42 to close out close games.

“I’m excited about how they respond when they’re not successful so far,” Nagel said. “They’re not happy about [not] being as strong as they know they are in a competition, and they respond really well by getting better, and so that’s a really positive thing. I like how they react to that and how they respond.” 

As Duke looks ahead to conference play, there are certainly areas for improvement. The serving game in particular has struggled at times—the Blue Devils had just one ace against Loyola Marymount and committed nine service errors. Although the team is averaging more aces per set than a season ago, the service game remains a focus as ACC play picks up. 

“Our serve can be a huge [advantage]. It’s the first attack that you can have in a match,” Nagel said. “We want to go out there on the aggressive side of things, so certainly that’s where that comes into play. A team can make a lot of things happen from their serve, so that’s the mentality that we want to have as we move forward.”