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Duke baseball set to pursue first NCAA regional win since 1961 this weekend

<p>Griffin Conine blasted three home runs in the Blue Devils' doubleheader sweep Monday.</p>

Griffin Conine blasted three home runs in the Blue Devils' doubleheader sweep Monday.

Two years later, the Blue Devils are ready for their second chance at a postseason run. Except this time around, with more confidence, experience and a determination to make program history.

No. 2 seed Duke will travel to Foley Field in Athens, Ga., to take on third-seeded Troy at 2 p.m. on Friday. In this double-elimination regionals tournament, the Blue Devils—depending on the results of the first game—will go on to play either top-seeded Georgia or No. 4 seed Campbell the following day.

After losing to eventual-tournament runner-up Louisville in the ACC tournament, Duke prepared for Monday’s selection show, where it would receive its seeding and regional location. After receiving the No. 2 seed behind Georgia’s one seed, the Blue Devils showed excitement in heading down to Athens, as 16 of the 39 players on the Duke roster are Georgia or Florida natives.

Part of that excitement no doubt stems from upperclassmen that are hungry for another chance at the NCAA tournament following their loss at the Columbia, S.C. regional in 2016.

“Two years ago we kind of set out at the beginning of the season with the goal of making a regional and breaking that streak of no postseasons,” senior pitcher Mitch Stallings said. “So at that point, I felt like we were sort of not satisfied, but we felt like we reached that goal. This year is different because we sort of had an expectation that we would make a regional and that we’d be in the postseason again, so we went into this year with higher expectations and higher goals for ourselves.”

The shift that can be seen between the 2016 and 2018 team is, in large part, due to the presence of the upperclassmen and their cultivation of a more competitive program.

“I’m really proud of the fact that we were able as a class to kind of move the Duke program where it is today and leave it better than we found it. A big part of it is the leadership from our class, the guys that we have are quality guys and good baseball players, too, so I think going forward, definitely proud of what we’ve done here.”

Coaching staff, including head coach Chris Pollard, have also seen the difference in the team itself—relative to the 2016 team that had strong pitching but was young in most other areas—and the attitude they are taking into this NCAA tournament with them.

“Most of the guys that will be on that bus with us have been through this one time before,” Pollard said. “And they have a lot of experience under their belts: ACC play, ACC tournament play, they’ve been in some big environments.”

Duke played a lot of really big games and series this season that showcased the determination and skill the team has when up against big opponents. The Blue Devils had key series wins over then-No.18 Virginia, Miami, then-No.12 Florida State, and then-No.4 North Carolina.

“We are experienced and we have been in a lot of big spots this year; we played our best baseball when we’ve been in those spots,” Pollard said. “I keep pointing back to the series down in Tallahassee as a great litmus test for this group in terms of their readiness to go and perform on a stage like this. We handled that environment exceptionally well, and that gives me a lot of confidence that we’re going to go in and handle this environment well.”

The Blue Devils are ready to play in a tough SEC environment at Foley Field—one comparative to the environment they played in South Carolina two years earlier—as they won’t have as many fans as the other teams. Georgia fans will be excited to be participating in this new environment. In addition, Athens is a close location for Troy, resulting in their fan base being present on Friday and most likely outnumbering Blue Devils in the crowd.

The Troy team that Duke will face won’t be easy to beat, even if the energetic environment and fan base weren’t factors. While Troy did struggle against a tough Florida State and Coastal Carolina team, it was successful against then-No.22 Auburn and showed potential in keeping games against top-ranked opponents close.

The Trojans have an impressive pitcher in senior Andrew Crane, who had an era of 2.82 and 83 strikeouts on the season. Their offense was equally impressive, with 124 doubles and 30 triples—proving their capability at the plate and their ability to make good contact. Troy is equally aggressive on the bases, boasting over 100 stolen bases on the season, putting pressure on its opponent to stay ready after the hit. Paired with solid defense, the Trojans prove to be a worthy adversary.

“[Troy] is a really good club. It’s hard to look at them and say, ‘what’s their weakness?’ because they don’t have a lot of weakness,” Pollard said. “They’ve got a really good guy out of the pen. We're going to see a very quality starter on Friday night. They make plays, they’ve got some speed, and they got some guys with a little bit of pop in their lineup too.They’re a really complete team and we’ll have to pay well to win the ball game.” 

After studying and researching its opposition, Duke had a game plan for its pitching against the Trojans, hoping to take advantage of favorable matchups and exploiting any slight weakness it can find in the Trojan gameplay.

Senior Ryan Day will start for the Blue Devils on Friday, with Stallings likely to follow against Duke's undetermined opponent Saturday.  

“It was a clear advantage to match a right-hander up against Troy versus anybody else in the bracket,” Pollard said on the decision to start Day. “That’s a favorable matchup for Ryan [Day] as well. They’re going to put at least six right-handed bats in their lineup. They had a clear difference in their OPS splits when they saw a left-handed pitcher versus a right-handed pitcher. And the matchup was slightly favorable too with Georgia, in terms of being able to run one of our left-handers against those guys."

Campbell would be a more familiar face if the Blue Devils face them, as they played them twice throughout the season—once away in March and then at home in April. Both were wins, the former being a 4-0 win and the latter being an 11-3 win, the final in a seven game winning streak as the Blue Devils picked up steam as the season progressed.

“We know Campbell really well,” Pollard said. “Justin Haire has done a tremendous job with that team. Obviously [Matthew] Barefoot is one of the best players in the Big South Conference and one of the best players in the country. He’s going to be a high draft pick. Allan Winans, who ultimately became their Friday night starter, pitched against us midweek when we went to Campbell back in March, so we saw their number one starter—a really great competitor and senior.”

Top-seeded Georgia will have home field advantage, a huge and loud fan base and a desire for winning. The team has had great success this season with important conferences series wins against Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and a close series loss to Kentucky. This will be the first time in over a decade that Georgia hosts an NCAA regional and the first time since 2011 that they've made the tournament; therefore, despite having an older team—very senior and junior heavy—the Bulldogs will enter the weekend with no players on the roster with postseason play and experience.

However, before even thinking ahead to teams such as Campbell and Georgia, the Blue Devils need to focus on securing their first NCAA regional win in over 50 years.

“The expectations are definitely higher,” senior captain Max Miller said. “Numbers-wise, as the two-seed, you’re expected to be in a different spot, but for us, we’re going to be ready to go regardless of how we play just to come out of the gate. We’re ready. This team is built to make a run. We’re deep; we’re not a top-heavy team. We’ve got all the pieces in place and we’re getting healthy at the right time, and I think we’ve been playing good ball recently, too, so we’re going to be ready to go.”


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