For Duke’s four seniors, their last season with the Blue Devils was not an easy one.
But in their last weekend at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke’s most experienced players ended their careers on a high note.
The Blue Devils spent their Thanksgiving break with the last two home matches of the season, starting with a thrilling 3-2 (24-26, 25-14, 25-15, 24-26, 15-8) victory against N.C. State Wednesday afternoon and ending with a 3-0 (25-21, 25-22, 25-20) sweep of North Carolina Friday night on Senior Night. Fittingly, Duke’s upperclassmen were in full force all week, with senior Cadie Bates spearheading the Blue Devil offense and senior Nicole Elattrache locked down Duke’s defense.
“[Beating two teams that beat us earlier in the season] is really nice,” Blue Devil head coach Jolene Nagel said. “That's what I mean about this team—they just work hard and continue to get better.”
Although Duke (19-12, 11-9 in the ACC) was taken down easily by the Wolfpack early in October, the Blue Devils came back with a vengeance.
Both teams opened up the contest with a physical back-and-forth, with Duke reaching the first media timeout barely holding on to a 16-14 lead. Although sophomore Samantha Amos notched her fifth kill of the first set to widen the Blue Devils’ lead to 18-15, N.C. State (20-11, 15-5) responded with a 4-0 run to pull ahead 19-18. Although Duke capitalized on Wolfpack attack errors to earn a set point, N.C. State refused to let go, tying the first set 24-24. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the Wolfpack locked down their back line to force Duke into errors, securing the first set.
Although their first set loss was disappointing, the Blue Devils have come a long way since being on the receiving end of a sweep from N.C. State.
Thanks to key blocks from senior Anna Kropf—who totaled a career-high 14 for the match and stands as one of three Blue Devils to reach that milestone in school history—Duke smothered the Wolfpack for the next two frames. The Blue Devils limited N.C. State to a -.052 combined hitting percentage in sets two and three, claiming the second set 25-14 and then using a 7-0 run sparked by an ace from freshman Summer Brown to capture the third 25-15.
Although Duke continued its impressive net play going into the fourth set—creating a 20-15 advantage—attack errors from the Blue Devils pulled the Wolfpack within one at 23-22. Yet again, both teams found themselves locked at 24-24, but key kills from N.C. State’s Julia Brown—who totaled 19 kills for the match—put the frame away.
The Blue Devils came back in the fifth set again with a slight lead at 8-6 at the midway point before a kill from Brown as well as back-to-back blocks from Kropf and junior Jessi Bartholomew secured the match.
“[N.C. State] was a good win for us because we had just dropped two games on the road,” Nagel said. “We had been traveling a lot and it was good to get back home. Our team lost to them earlier in three and we knew we could do a lot better. The team has just worked hard to get better throughout the season, and they hung in there mentally to get that tough one on Wednesday.”
Coming off a massive win against the Wolfpack, Duke was on fire going into its match against the Tar Heels (14-14, 11-9)—and it showed.
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Although North Carolina held the Blue Devils close—letting them lead by just one at 15-14—Duke found some separation off a 4-0 run thanks to kills from Bates and attack errors from the Tar Heels. Ultimately, Kropf established set point at 24-21 before freshman Payton Schwantz put the set away with a rocket of a kill.
Duke’s rollercoaster against North Carolina extended into the second set, with the Tar Heels overcoming a 14-10 Blue Devil lead with a 5-0 run to push themselves in front. Tied up 17-17, kills from Bates and Schwantz finally broke the set open before miscues from North Carolina gave Duke the commanding 2-0 lead.
In the Blue Devils’ final set of the regular season, Amos stepped up to contribute six of her 11 total kills to ensure a victory. Although the Tar Heels used a 3-0 run to cut into Duke's lead at 19-17, Duke stayed focused until the end to take the victory.
“Against North Carolina, [the root of our success] was the same thing,” Nagel said. “Our team had the right leadership and allowed us to continue to make progress, and so we were ready the second time around.”
With the regular season over, the NCAA tournament selection show is Sunday, but the Blue Devils have little chance at being selected after being ranked No. 92 in the RPI entering the week.
“I can't say enough about our [seniors],” Nagel said. “They have been remarkable leaders. They started at the end of last season and didn't waste much time when they knew they would have to be leaders for this team. They've done an incredible job with it.”