The crowd of more than 1,300 people, packed into the 500-seat stadium and on a hill in right field, cheered on Duke President Vincent Price as he stepped in the pitcher’s circle. Price swung his arm back, lunged forward and hurled the yellow softball underhand to sophomore Raine Wilson for the first pitch in Duke softball history.
The Blue Devils took the field for the first time ever Saturday afternoon at the Duke Softball Stadium, but fell 8-3 in a 10-inning exhibition to N.C. State. Duke carried a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning, but a Wolfpack two-run home run from Cheyenne Balzer tied the game. N.C. State broke the game open in the eighth, scoring four times, with three of those runs coming off bases-loaded walks. Blue Devil redshirt freshman Hannah Pridemore responded in the bottom of the inning by hitting the first home run in school history.
“I jumped right on it, and it felt so great,” Pridemore said after pulling the ball to deep left field.
Duke would not get any closer, as the Wolfpack added two more in the ninth to cap off their 8-3 win.
“I shouldn’t be this happy about losing, because I’ve never been this happy with a loss in my life,” sophomore Raine Wilson said. “There’s no other girls I’d want to play with. Yeah, I’m smiling. You’ll never catch me smiling again after a loss, I’ll tell you that.”
Wilson wasn't the only one smiling after the game. Young fans, including many softball players from the Durham area, smiled as they ran the bases, got autographs from and took pictures with their soon-to-be favorite players. The softball players were celebrities to these kids.
“I can already tell you we have the best fans in the ACC, and this was the first game,” Wilson said after signing autographs. “It was the first time for everyone here too, and they were already starting the 'Let’s go Duke' [chant] with the bleachers, and looking in right field and seeing all those people, it was a great atmosphere.”
The Blue Devil fans were electric—one guy wore a blue wig, another blew his soccer horn, another rang cow bells and kids stood up to sing karaoke to almost every song played over the public address system.
With two outs and the bases loaded for Duke in the fourth, Blue Devil fans started a new tradition. Freshman Jameson Kavel stepped up to bat, and for each pitch she faced, Duke fans stomped their feet on the bleachers and screamed “Let’s go Duke!” during N.C. State pitcher Devin Wallace’s windup.
Wallace got rattled and walked Kavel to force in the first run in program history. Wallace’s next pitch sailed past the Wolfpack catcher, and junior Reilly Metzger sprinted home, slid past the tag and scored on a bang-bang play at the plate. The stomping continued on every big at-bat for the rest of the game.
Had Saturday’s game been a seven-inning regular-season game, the Blue Devils would have taken N.C. State—a team that made the semifinals in the ACC tournament last season and has a top-20 recruiting class—to extra innings. Duke proved, even with a team that has seven freshmen, five redshirt freshmen and a sophomore, that it can hang with ACC competition.
“We’ve said it from day one: A freshman is just a label,” head coach Marissa Young said. “We’re preparing them every day at practice to play like an upperclassman. I think they have the ability to do that if we continue to stick to the process. They’ll be where they need to be come spring.”
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On this young team, a leader has emerged after Wilson transferred from James Madison to join the Blue Devils this year.
“[Wilson] is a great leader and has the ability to step up and get it done,” Young said. “She’s the one leading every huddle, and the girls are like, ‘What is Raine going to say with her words of wisdom?’”
Entering the game, Wilson was worried about the defense. But by the end of the evening, she thought “our defense came out today and just crushed it.”
Duke posted only one error and had several impressive defensive plays. Redshirt freshman Kortney Dry fell to her knees to stop a ground ball at third and fired it to junior Hannah Pridemore, who swiped her glove and snagged the ball from the dirt to get the out at first. Dry later moved to second base, where she had another stellar play, cutting off a ball destined for right field and flipping it sidearm to Pridemore again for the out.
Another highlight came in the pitching circle—freshman Peyton St. George came into the game in the seventh and struck out the side.
“Peyton just has that ability to turn it up a notch when she needs to, and we saw her do that,” Young said.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Wilson added. “I was telling her, 'Stop looking at the radar and start hitting your spots.' After [she struck out the side], I told her, you’re not done yet, that’s not the last time you’re going to do that.... I expect nothing less from her.”
Duke softball was announced as a varsity sport almost four years ago, the stadium was finished in late August, and Saturday, the Blue Devils took the field for the first time. For players and fans, the first game was special.
“I can’t believe we played the game already.... I just wish I’d soaked it in a little more,” Wilson said. “I’ve never felt a love like that for the game in probably two years.... I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”