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Duke baseball looks to keep last year’s fire alive in its season opener against Lehigh

<p>Joey Loperfido will return as a key player from last year's impressive postseason run.</p>

Joey Loperfido will return as a key player from last year's impressive postseason run.

The 2017-18 season was quite the record-setting year for Duke. Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard’s squad finished the season with 45 total wins, 18 ACC wins, and a berth in the Super Regional, accomplishments that had never before been reached in the program's history. 

With two NCAA tournament appearances in the last three seasons, Duke has made it clear that it is a force to be reckoned with and is here to stay. The Blue Devils will look to emulate last year’s success when they kick off the season at home against Lehigh. The first pitch is set for 4 p.m. Friday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, with the remaining two games of the series set to start at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

“We understand that the bar has been raised for the program, and the expectations have been raised,” said Pollard, Duke's coach for the last six seasons. “That’s a good thing and certainly that’s something that we’re proud of.”

Ranked 22nd by Baseball America and 20th by Collegiate Baseball, the Blue Devils certainly have a lot to be optimistic about. Sophomore Joey Loperfido and senior Kennie Taylor will be returning to Duke’s starting lineup with postseason experience and great poise. Loperfido batted .316 last year and finished third on the team with 43 RBIs, whereas Taylor was a valuable outfielder and batted .286. However, what the Blue Devils really have going for them is their extraordinary pitching depth.

Junior Graeme Stinson will look to build off an extraordinary postseason run. The Norcross, Ga., native posted a 1.89 ERA in 62 innings last season and led all Division I pitchers with at least 62 innings thrown with a strikeout rate of 14.2 percent. Stinson will be under the microscope this season after being listed at No. 9 on MLB Pipeline's top 50 prospects for the 2019 MLB Draft.

Junior Adam Laskey will also be back on the mound will be joined by captain Hunter Davis and Bryce Jarvis. Laskey, Stinson, and Jarvis all played for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team over the summer and will look to tie in that experience to improving a pitching squad with some of the most powerful arms in the country. Duke will also be adding transfers Ben Gross and Eli Herrick as pitchers.

With 11 players gone from the 2018 team, the Blue Devils must work together to fill those holes, build off of last year’s run, and integrate 16 new faces into the program.

“We can’t try to replace some of the guys that we have to replace with one player matching another player’s production,” Pollard said. “In other words, you can’t expect someone to come in as a freshman and be Griffin Conine or Jimmy Herron. Our guys have to pick up that productivity collectively.”

Duke will get its first chance to feel out its new team chemistry against Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks are led by head coach Sean Leary, who will be returning for his 24th season, and he will be joined by key players Jeff Shanfeldt and Tony Gallo. Although winning only 22 games in 2018 and finishing near the bottom of the Patriot League, Lehigh boasts a strong pitching rotation along with competent hitters, and Leary’s squads have been forces in their division in prior seasons.

To start the year strong, the Blue Devils must come out hungry and determined Friday. Being just a few innings away from the College World Series in 2018, Duke understands the mentality and drive needed for great success and will be sure to apply them moving forward.

“There’s a lot of lessons that we can learn from last year, particularly when it comes to understanding the importance of resiliency,” Pollard said. “We had to play in five elimination games to get to and through that Super Regional, and [we] learned a lot about what you can accomplish when you have great resiliency. That’s a big piece of the puzzle that we can build off of with last year’s team.” 

Look for more of that great resiliency starting Friday.


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