Coming off of two straight road wins, the Blue Devils entered this weekend’s slate with a golden opportunity to further improve their relatively shaky conference resume.
Thanks to renewed power on the front row, Duke walked away from another successful weekend with momentum heading into the final month of conference play.
The Blue Devils took down Georgia Tech 3-1 (19-25, 25-23, 25-14, 25-19) in Atlanta Friday evening at O’Keefe Gymnasium before blanking Clemson 3-0 (25-12, 25-20, 25-21) in Clemson, S.C., Sunday afternoon at Jervey Gym. Led by junior Jessi Bartholomew, Duke showed a degree of offensive finesse that had been lacking at times through the season.
“[Jessi] has had to step into a role for us when Natalie [Schilling] got hurt,” Blue Devil head coach Jolene Nagel said. “After getting that first weekend out of the way, she has really gotten to get in there and become an offensive threat for us.... She stepped up when the opportunity was in front of her.”
Duke’s first matchup against the Yellow Jackets was its toughest of the weekend, with Georgia Tech putting the Blue Devils (14-8, 7-5 in the ACC) behind early before they could mount a comeback.
Although Duke led the first set 5-1, the Yellow Jackets (10-12, 5-6) put together two 3-0 runs to find a lead at 9-7. Although the Blue Devils tried to battle back, key blocks from Georgia Tech’s front line held them at bay, with the Yellow Jackets cruising to a comfortable first-set victory off 16 kills and a .293 hitting percentage.
“We weren't playing badly in the first set,” Nagel said. “We weren't controlling the ball as well as we would like to, primarily off of service. We were just a little bit tight. It's a tough environment to play in. They always bring in big crowds, it's loud, the band is loud. We were just getting a feel for where we were.”
However, the Blue Devils were undeterred, and freshman Payton Schwantz came up big in the second set to tip the scales toward Duke.
The Blue Devils led by as many as three, but Georgia Tech refused to be shaken off, tying the set 19-19. But back-to-back service aces from senior Cadie Bates as well as two kills from Schwantz—the final marking her sixth in the set—closed the set 25-23 to tie the match.
From there, the Blue Devils took control. Bartholomew—who contributed 14 kills in the match—helped Duke take a 10-point lead with a 6-1 run, setting up the Blue Devils for a 25-14 set. Although Georgia Tech adjusted at the start of the fourth frame, a 5-0 and then a 4-0 run from Duke put it in front 19-14. Attack errors cost the Yellow Jackets yet again, and the Blue Devils finished the set 25-19 for the victory.
“We started serving a bit more efficiently, taking advantage of that, and that helped us in the second set,” Nagel said. “We started to control the tempo more starting into the second set, definitely in the third set, and kept that going into the fourth set.”
With Duke's offense firing on all cylinders, it built on its momentum to easily sweep the Tigers (7-17, 2-10).
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Topping the match with 11 kills and hitting .588, Bartholomew controlled the afternoon. The Blue Devils opened the first set on an 8-1 run and never lost the advantage, building off four kills from the Newnan, Ga., native to breeze through the set 25-12. The second set was a similar story, with Duke notching 18 kills on .400 hitting to take a commanding lead.
Although Clemson put up a harder fight in the final frame, the Blue Devils took full advantage of their explosive offense to put take the Tigers down. In a set that saw 10 ties and seven lead changes, a kill from Bates finally broke a 19-19 tie to push Duke ahead. With key contributions from senior Anna Kropf—who contributed seven kills without an error in the match—the Blue Devils gained the separation they needed before Bartholomew put down the final kill for a 25-21 victory and a 3-0 sweep.
“We started out super strong and then they kept coming back and fighting—that's where that third set came from,” Nagel said. “It was tied in the high teens. We really had to work hard at the end of the third set to close it out.”
With Bartholomew finally getting back into last year’s form—when she stood as Duke’s third-highest kill producer—the Blue Devils are beginning to show off a more balanced offense that could be dangerous for tougher conference opposition. The Duke outside hitter has notched double-digit kills in five straight games, earning 68 of her 88 total kills this season in the month of October.
The Blue Devils will be back at home for a weekend to continue conference play, taking on Notre Dame Nov. 3 before facing off against Louisville Nov. 5.
“We look forward to getting back to [Cameron],” Nagel said. “These have been two long weekends…. I'm proud of our team to be able to go to these away venues and play their game and come home with the W's. “