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Duke softball splits season-opening quartet in Mexico

<p>Amelia Wiercioch was strong in Mexico.</p>

Amelia Wiercioch was strong in Mexico.

“We want to be one of the top teams in the country.”

A bold statement, perhaps, from head coach Marissa Young about an organization entering only its second year. But her team certainly proved that they can live up to this expectation this past weekend, winning two and losing two in the Puerto Vallarta Challenge against some of the better competition the country has to offer.

In its first and only matchup against an unranked opponent, Duke bested Notre Dame (2-2) by a final of 7-3. The Blue Devils got the scoring going early, plating two in the bottom of the first thanks to a two-out, two-run triple off the bat of third baseman Raine Wilson, but seemed to lose this early energy quickly, tallying only two more hits through the next four innings.

The Fighting Irish rallied around this defensive momentum, registering two runs in the fourth and one in the fifth with some timely hitting and a few defensive lapses by Duke. But they did not hold the lead for long, as the Blue Devils came back with a monstrous sixth inning, sending all nine hitters to the dish as they pushed five runs across. Amelia Wiercioch sent the Notre Dame hitters down in order to seal the deal in the top of the seventh, getting the win as Duke notched its first victory of a long campaign. 

“They just showed a lot of fight, which is something we’ve been working really hard on,” stressed coach Young about the contest against Notre Dame. “It was fun to see that in the very first game of the season.”

But the Blue Devils (2-2) did not have much time to relish their opening day triumph, as they headed back to the ballpark to face No. 9 South Carolina the next day. And the Gamecocks did not take much time to pounce, scoring in the first inning thanks to some timely running by third baseman Jana Johns, who stole third and came home after an error by Duke catcher Kristina Foreman. South Carolina took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the sixth frame, where another two-out triple off the bat of Wilson looked to spark a Blue Devil comeback, but the fire was put out quickly by the Gamecocks (2-2), who retired the next Duke batter.

It was the second game of two in which opponents scored unearned runs due to defensive errors, but coach Young seemed unperturbed even while recognizing that the Blue Devil defense left something to be desired.

“Once we clean some things up on defense and continue to get a little sharper from a pitching standpoint, I think we are going to be outstanding,” Young said, echoing her earlier confidence. 

And clearly, her team shared the sentiment, taking down No. 22 Liberty by a final of 3-1 in game number three to register Duke’s first win over a ranked opponent in program history. 

Brianna Butler tossed four and a third shutout innings in the victory with her defense coming to her aid every step of the way. Allowing five hits and five walks, it wasn’t a gem from Butler, but the team combined to shut the door on the Flames. They scored only one run the entire game, coming in a seventh inning that looked threatening for the Blue Devils, facing a bases loaded scenario with only one out. But Wiercioch came in to shut the door, recording the save after two ground-ball outs secured a big victory for the Duke side. Caroline Jacobsen featured on the offensive side, belting a home run as well as recording a single to drive in two of the three runs.

But the Blue Devils were not done yet, playing their second game that day against the Washington Huskies, coming in as the No. 2 team in the nation. This, they dropped by a final of 4-1, only registering four hits total after two in the first inning.

The game got off to another fast start, as a single and a wild pitch put shortstop Marissa Gagliano in scoring position, and she was promptly knocked in by a double off the bat of Rachel Abboud.

For a moment, the second-year team was leading the second-best team in the country.

But alas, the opponents must be allowed to bat as well. A two-RBI single in the bottom of the frame put the Huskies (3-1) up 2-1, and they never looked back, pushing across two in the second as well and shutting out Duke the rest of the way.

A split of these four games for the Blue Devils is a promising sign for what this season has to hold. Both sophomore Jameson Kavel as well as freshman Caroline Jacobsen earned all-tournament team honors, and the young Duke team faced some of the toughest competition it will see all year. 

Coach Young remarked finally that “[the] kids learned this weekend that we can play with anybody in the country,” and in fact, this may not be as bold of a statement as it seemed entering the weekend. 

The Blue Devils, in the second year of the program, are here to do damage.

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