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Duke softball hopes to extend inaugural season in ACC tournament

Raine WIlson became the first Duke player ever to receive first-team All-ACC recognition Tuesday.
Raine WIlson became the first Duke player ever to receive first-team All-ACC recognition Tuesday.

For Team One, there have been plenty of expected firsts—from the first hit to the first strikeout to the first series sweep. There have also been some unexpected ones, including a seventh-place finish in the ACC.

Now with 13 conference victories in their pockets, the Blue Devils will tackle yet another first come Wednesday afternoon—their first postseason.

No. 7 seed Duke begins its ACC tournament run with an opening-round matchup against 10th-seeded Virginia Tech at 3:30 p.m. at Mewborn Field in Atlanta before a potential quarterfinal contest Thursday evening against No. 2 seed Pittsburgh, should the Blue Devils advance. Duke took two of three games on the road against the Hokies just two and a half weeks ago, and with the Blue Devils almost certainly out of the running for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Duke will be playing for its season.

But even after winning seven of their final nine conference games, a miserable weekend just before the tournament—dropping a pair of contests at Longwood and suffering a home defeat to Campbell—doesn't necessarily inspire confidence.

Head coach Marissa Young, however, was not worried about her team's struggles lingering into the Blue Devils' most important game of 2018.

"Not to make excuses but the kids coming off finals was a big part of [the losses]. We gave them almost three full days off going into the weekend just to give them time to study," Young said. "We really weren't in a good rhythm, pitchers were struggling a little bit and we didn't play well defensively behind them. I think we've had a couple of good days of practice and now they're ready to roll for the ACC tournament."

Even amidst a rough stretch, Duke's star remained steady during the regular season's final weekend. Sophomore Raine Wilson went 4-for-10 in the trio of contests, blasting a two-run go-ahead homer in Saturday's opener before adding a double Sunday.

On the season, not only does Wilson lead the Blue Devils (29-26) in batting average, but she is fourth in the conference—batting .378 in 164 at-bats—and ranks seventh in slugging, tied for second in hits and has 35 RBIs.

And Tuesday evening, the James Madison transfer made Duke history, becoming the Blue Devils' first-ever All-ACC honoree, as Wilson was named to the conference's first team.

"She's been through a year of college softball, but she only had one at-bat last year," Young said. "Raine has had to experience all the things the other freshmen have had to, which is finding that growth of who you are and finding that mindset that allows you to be successful consistently.

"It's been really fun. She's transformed her swing to hit the ball opposite field and she worked really hard on that early on in the year.... She's been a steady force for us defensively but obviously very consistent at the plate."

Wilson was not the only Duke player to pick up honors Tuesday—Rachel Abboud and Peyton St. George were named to the ACC's All-Freshman team as well. Abboud hit .315 on the season to trail just Wilson, and St. George posted a 1.81 ERA, making her just one of six pitchers in the conference with a sub-2.00 ERA.

But the ACC tournament is a different animal, and the Blue Devils might be best off forgetting about what happened during the regular season.

Of Duke's eight conference series, half started with losses in the opening game, including its first game against Virginia Tech. With the tournament's single-elimination format, the Blue Devils will have no room for slip-ups if they want to live to play another day.

"Our kids, all year long, have thrived with the mindset of being the underdog, and going into this tournament, I think it's going to fuel their fire. They know [if] they lose, they go home," Young said. "But at the same time, they've played the teams on our side of the bracket and had success against them."

Young didn't reveal who would start against the Hokies (22-29), but the Duke coach explained that the team would look at matchups, and given that the tournament will only be a maximum of one game longer than a regular series, she hinted that the Blue Devils would handle it like a normal weekend set.

That would mean Katherine Huey would take to the circle Wednesday with Amelia Wiercioch potentially starting Thursday, using St. George as the team's primary reliever as she has done all season.

But having spent much of the last week together with classes wrapped up, Duke is ready to accomplish even more in its inaugural campaign.

"It's exciting for our program," Young said. "School's over, academics are behind them and now it's just the first time of year to focus on softball and competing for championships."

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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