Duke volleyball hits the road again looking to snap 3-match skid

<p>The Blue Devils have shown improvement at the net despite their recent losses.</p>

The Blue Devils have shown improvement at the net despite their recent losses.

For a team battling a lopsided away schedule to end the conference slate and multiple injuries cutting deep into the roster, the Blue Devils have had a roller coaster of a year.

And with just two weeks left in the regular season, Duke will be looking for two key road wins to start to end that ride on a high note.

The Blue Devils will travel to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to take on Boston College Friday at Power Gym before continuing their campaign in Syracuse, N.Y., Sunday against Syracuse at the Women’s Building. Despite putting up strong numbers against the ACC’s top two teams in Pittsburgh and Louisville—including a season-high 19 blocks against the Panthers—Duke lost both to continue a three-match skid, making an early-weekend win essential to regain confidence.

"This team knows they are capable of making more plays than they were able to, but certainly getting 19 blocks and being in every set has to give our team confidence moving forward,” Blue Devil head coach Jolene Nagel said. “The way this team is, it inspires them to keep working hard. That’s been their culture the entire year.”

Duke (16-11, 8-8 in the ACC) will enter this weekend with a golden opportunity to pick up a win against an Eagles team that has struggled all season.

Boston College (6-20, 3-13) currently sits next to the bottom of conference standings, finding itself on a four-match losing streak and without a win so far in November. Although the Eagles have matched their opponents defensively—notching 13.4 digs per set to 13.9 from other teams—Boston College has had its season marred by poor production at the net and on offense.

With only two players with more than two kills per set—right side hitter Cat Balido and outside hitter Lynn Braakhuis 2.8—the Eagles have netted just six sets and one win in their last 10 contests. To make matters worse for Boston College, the Eagles average just 1.9 blocks per set—meaning aggressive teams like Duke will be able to slice through Boston College’s front court. Although the Eagles are most comfortable on their home turf—with five of their six wins coming at home—Boston College will be hard-pressed to put pressure on Duke’s developing net game.

“Fortunately, we have played both [teams] this year, so we are a bit more familiar with them, so that helps,” Nagel said. “Our team has to walk the walk and talk the talk is that anything can happen in the ACC with these matches.... With Boston College, we were fortunate enough to get a W earlier in the year, but we've got to tend to business to do it a second time.”

Although the Blue Devils may be able to cruise to a win Friday, Sunday’s contest against the Orange will be a bigger challenge.

Syracuse (17-12, 9-7) sits just one slot above Duke in the ACC, with an earlier 3-1 win in Cameron against the Blue Devils to its name. Although the Orange are also staring at a four-match losing streak, Syracuse will likely lean on its physical front line to drain Duke of momentum.

For the Blue Devils, their biggest challenge will cracking Syracuse’s net game. Middle blocker Santita Ebangwese has been a nightmare for teams attacking at the net, averaging 1.3 blocks per set with 136 for the season. Backing her up is fellow middle blocker Amber Witherspoon, who towers at 6-foot-4 and contributes 1.2 blocks per set.

Syracuse’s offensive efficiency does not stop at the net, and the Orange have some serious firepower from their hitters. Duke will especially have to watch out for outside hitter Anastasiya Gorelina, who averages 3.0 kills per set. Backed up by setter Jalissa Trotter, Syracuse has an efficient offensive machine that can chew through the Blue Devils if they are not careful.

“[The Orange] have tremendous size and they play great defense against us," Nagel said. "Hopefully we're going to have to have our block going so that we can give them a better fight than we did last time."

Although Duke has struggled without junior Leah Meyer at the net for much of the season due to injury, the Blue Devils’ recent 19 blocks against Pittsburgh showed that Duke’s steadily improving net game can finally be considered a real threat. Outside hitters Cadie Bates and Payton Schwantz have also formed the core of the Blue Devils’ aggressive attacking unit, contributing to Duke’s 13.5 kills per set despite missing outside hitter Natalie Schilling.

“We have had two back-to-back [away] weekends in our schedule while some teams haven't even had one,” Nagel said. “This is another hard trip of travel.... This team is looking forward to the challenges and looking forward to these last four matches.”


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