With the first-ever regular-season contest for Duke softball less than a month away, we begin our multi-part series "Spotlight on Softball," several stories that will give fans an early look at the inaugural squad. Today's feature highlights head coach Marissa Young, the Blue Devils' leader who has helped build this team from square one.
A little less than a decade ago, Duke Athletics released its latest strategic plan entitled “Unrivaled Ambition.”
Within the 39-page document, there was never a mention of softball, let alone any new sports, but it was clear that the University had a mission to continue its development as a force in the ACC.
Fast forward 10 years, and if there is any coach in Durham who fits such a title, it is Marissa Young. After eight seasons coaching at three different schools—most recently as an assistant just down Tobacco Road at North Carolina—Young’s ambition in putting together a brand-new program in less than two years is only 22 days from coming to fruition.
With all of the players finally on campus, practicing and growing together, the reality of a 27th varsity team at Duke has nearly arrived.
“Every season has brought different things—hiring a staff, getting the facility done and now the team is on campus,” Young said. “We’re preparing for the season to come, and what I think has been really exciting is every part of this journey has been a new challenge. I think every day has been a new day here, and that’s really exciting—seeing the growth has been really exciting and just getting this group to jell as a unit, because there are no parts that have been here. Everything is brand new.”
In the fall, the Blue Devils played several scrimmages at their new stadium on East Campus, and since its completion, the team has taken advantage of its digs. Within the complex is a team room, coaches’ offices, a players’ lounge and an indoor batting cage and practice facility, all underneath the stands of a stadium that can seat up to 500 fans.
“It’s been a huge transformation,” Young said. “Just to have the ability for the girls to come in here and practice at their leisure is very important. For them to be able to just get together and talk and study and lounge together in the players’ lounge is really key—they have a place to call home.
“It’s really brought together the cohesiveness and the relationship-building. For us as coaches, we’re in here and they’re popping through, conversations can be had, so this stadium having everything we need in one space has been a real key piece of our success.”
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Young’s roster-building has been a process spanning multiple years and recruiting classes in addition to several transfers. Duke’s current crop of 17 players ranges from a dozen in their first year of athletic eligibility to a graduate transfer who played for the Tar Heels last season.
But it wasn’t until fall that the Blue Devils had their own space to develop a program. And the team will not likely be at full strength for a couple more seasons—Duke’s 2018 recruiting class will add seven players to the team at the start of the next academic year in August, including three ranked among the FloSoftball Top 100.
After working for a handful of established programs, building this group of Blue Devils from the ground up has been a unique task for the former Big Ten Player of the Year at Michigan.
“[The biggest challenge was] having to recruit so many in such a short period of time at a university where academics are so tough,” Young said. “Usually as a coach, you’re looking to replace kids who are graduating and your team has already established its identity and what its strengths and weaknesses are, and you’re filling holes. To have to create from day one what your team identity is going to be and to have to pull that all together overnight, it was a challenge.”
Still, wins are not going to be easy to come by in Duke’s first season.
The Blue Devils open the year with five of their first nine games against teams from the Big Ten, a league that sent five sides to last year’s NCAA tournament, including Ohio State, which Duke will play Feb. 9. And ACC foe Florida State ended last year as the nation’s fourth-ranked team and came up just a win short of making it to Oklahoma City for the 2017 Women’s College World Series.
Regardless, the expectations for this team aren’t ones of wins and losses. As Young explains, it’s a matter of laying the groundwork for the next few seasons and putting together the pieces that will allow the Blue Devils to eventually become competitive both in the ACC and on the national stage.
“We’re trying to build a great foundation here, and we’re really focused on the process,” she explained. “We’re going to celebrate the little things we do well and not be totally focused on the outcome. But I’m confident with this group and the work they’ve put in and what they’re capable of. If they stick to the process and do what they’re capable of, we’re going to win some games.”
Not since 1999 has there been a new varsity team in Durham, when rowing began. Three years earlier, Kerstin Kimel launched the Duke women’s lacrosse team, which won just three times in 15 games during its first season. It was not until two years later that those Blue Devils played their first postseason game.
It is likely to be a similar story for Duke softball as it looks to get off the ground, but with an experienced hand at the helm, the Blue Devils appear poised to quickly find their footing.
“I’m really proud of the courage that it took for every single one of the members to come here and be a part of something new and to start it, because it’s not easy,” Young said. “I really want to see the work that these kids have put in pay off for them and them to enjoy the experience and know that it’s not about being perfect and winning games. I want to see them grow.”