Last weekend, the Blue Devils clinched the ACC regular-season title with dominant performances against North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Now, Duke is three wins away from hoisting the postseason championship trophy and likely one of the top three seeds come NCAA tournament play next month.
Duke won the regular season outright with a sweep against Virginia Tech Sunday afternoon, securing the top seed in the ACC tournament this weekend. By earning a double-bye into the quarterfinals, the Blue Devils will open play Friday at 9 a.m. against eighth-seeded N.C. State at the Cary Tennis Park.
The ACC tournament will represent a homecoming for junior Kaitlyn McCarthy, a native of Cary, N.C., which is approximately 25 minutes away from Duke’s campus.
“Kaitlyn grew up on those courts and has played there her whole life. I don’t want to say our second home, our kind of home away from home,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We’re familiar with that and we will do everything we can over the course of the weekend to get as much of a home-court advantage as we can—more with fans, spectators, and people from Duke being able to come over and see. Having it be close is a good thing.”
The Blue Devils (20-2, 13-1 in the ACC) earned their first conference win of the season on the road against the then-No. 38 Wolfpack (16-13, 7-7) Feb. 18 in a 6-1 decision. The current fifth-ranked duo of senior Samantha Harris and freshman Kelly Chen earned a 6-2 doubles victory after sophomore Meible Chi and freshman Hannah Zhao walked away victorious 6-2.
On the singles side, No. 28 Chen, No. 54 Chi, junior Ellyse Hamlin and Zhao each won their match in straight sets. No. 6 Harris fought through a second-set defeat to win the third frame and the match. McCarthy fell in a third-set super tiebreaker 6-10 for Duke’s lone loss of the afternoon.
With a win Friday morning, Duke will face the winner of fourth-seeded Miami and 13th-seeded Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils only dropped two singles sets against the Hurricanes at home March 25, with Harris losing to No. 3 Estela Perez-Somarriba. Duke clinched the outright regular-season title against the Hokies, who upset No. 17 Florida State Thursday morning.
The tournament setting presents different challenges, but not something the Blue Devils have never seen before. Duke played three consecutive matches in three days for the indoor nationals, but most dual matches in conference play occur on a Friday evening and Sunday afternoon schedule with some aberration along the way.
“I don’t think our preparation changes. I think our mindset changes. We talked about that today and we talked about having to really value that opportunity to finish points. When you’re playing the three matches in three days, you don’t want to be stuck in four-hour battles if you can help it,” Ashworth said. “Obviously, you want to win first and that’s the priority is to do everything you can and everything it takes to win. But we want to be as efficient in that process as we possibly can.”
By virtue of claiming the top seed this weekend, the Blue Devils will only have to face the winner of the potential semifinal matchup between No. 2 North Carolina and No. 4 Georgia Tech instead of potentially facing both teams on back-to-back days.
Duke split its two meetings with the Tar Heels. The Blue Devils dropped the February contest in the semifinals of the ITA National Team Indoors 4-1. But more than two months later, Duke earned its biggest win of the season against the then top-ranked team.
The Yellow Jackets gave the Blue Devils their only ACC loss April 6 in a rain-infested match in Atlanta. Duke dropped the doubles point to accompany losses from Harris, Hamlin and Zhao.
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Ashworth’s team will be on the court earlier than most of its matches all season long. But playing first on the court does provide some benefits like playing in cooler temperatures and continuing with a successful routine.
“You can go through your normal warmup routine on the courts you’re going to play on as opposed to having waiting for other matches to finish, maybe moving during your warmup,” Ashworth said. “We can go through our normal routine we’ve been doing for four months now.”
Last season, the Blue Devils also finished the regular season 13-1 in conference play, but they were tied with North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Duke, as the second seed, ended up losing 4-0 to the Yellow Jackets, who then fell to the Tar Heels in the championship match.
This year, the Blue Devils are back and looking to win their first ACC championship since 2012. All six Duke singles starters have notched at least 11 conference victories, including Chen, who went a perfect 14-0. The Cerritos, Calif., native is the first Blue Devil freshman to accomplish this feat in 14 matches and the second overall. McCarthy was perfect last season as the first player to do so.
Although Duke is comfortably into the NCAA tournament and will host the first two rounds, this tournament can help to solidify the Blue Devils' place on the top of the best college tennis conference with three of the top four teams in the nation.
“It’s a hungry team. Being mature, they understand the importance and value of each point that they play. They understand the value of the ACC tournament. They know they accomplished a lot over the course of the year and they’ve done a great job this week of putting that behind them and focusing on the tournament,” Ashworth said. “We’re in a situation where we’re not protecting anything. We didn’t win the tournament last year, so it’s something out there for us. We don’t need to be in a protective mode, we need to have an aggressive mindset.”