After only facing three ranked opponents all of last season, the Blue Devils are now preparing to play just as many in the span of only four days.
Duke will open its season in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Thursday at 9:30 p.m. at Nancy Almaraz Stadium against ACC foe Notre Dame. The Blue Devils will then face No. 9 South Carolina at 7:00 p.m. Friday and No. 22 Liberty at 4:00 p.m. Saturday. Duke will cap off the tournament against No. 2 Washington Saturday at 9:30 p.m. Though they gained invaluable experience in their inaugural season, the Blue Devils will still depend heavily on new faces. Duke has already had an opportunity to showcase its talent with its fall slate, outscoring its opponents 51-17.
“It’s huge [to have a Fall slate],” head coach Marissa Young told GoDuke.com. “We're able to put them in pressure situations or ask them to do some things that are maybe out of their comfort zone just to see how they are going to respond. That’s what we’re looking for, just to grow them by challenging them.”
With the addition of seven new freshman and graduate transfer Marissa Gagliano, Duke will have a new look this year. The Blue Devils also return almost all of their offensive mainstays, such as junior Raine Wilson. Wilson clocked a .371 batting average with 35 RBIs on her way to first team All-ACC honors.
Despite it being the first year of the program, Duke finished with a winning record and earned the seventh-overall seed in the ACC tournament. Though the Blue Devils fell to Virginia Tech in the first round, the season was certainly a success in light of it being their first year.
“I want to see them pay attention to the details, no matter whether we’re up or down,” Young said. “At times when we get big leads, we let some little things slip. I want to see them pay attention to those little things all the way through.”
The difference-maker this season is that Duke only played three ranked teams all of last season, one of which being then-No. 15 South Carolina—a team that the Blue Devils will face again this weekend. In the span of the next three days, Duke will face just as many top-25 teams as it did last season, not including Notre Dame, which clocks in at 27th in the country.
The first challenge for the Blue Devils comes in the form of the Irish, a team that is predicted to finish second in the ACC this season. Notre Dame returns all but one starter in 2019 after competing in the NCAA championship for the 20th straight season and the 23rd overall in program history.
The Irish feature sophomore outfielder Abby Sweet, one of 15 players to be tabbed pre-season All-ACC. Sweet started all 57 games for Notre Dame last season in center field, ranking second on the Irish roster with a .333 batting average. She also established a single-season Notre Dame record after being hit by a pitch 22 times over the course of the year.
The second game that Duke will play is against the Gamecocks, a team that the Blue Devils faced last year but lost 6-1. South Carolina is led by Junior infielder Mackenzie Boesel, who averaged .360 last year with a slugging percentage of .596—just a bit over Wilson’s.
Boesel was also named to the pre-season all-SEC team and was among five players to receive all-SEC honors last season for the Gamecocks.
The third challenge for Duke comes against the Flames, who are also coming off a historic season. Liberty won 49 games last season, setting a program record for wins in a season. The mark also gave the Flames back-to-back 40-plus win seasons for the first time.
Liberty is predicted to finish first in the ASUN conference this season and has two preseason conference players of the year. Junior infielder Autumn Bishop was chosen as ASUN Preseason Player of the Year and senior Julia DiMartino was named ASUN Preseason Pitcher of the Year.
The most intimidating opponent for the Blue Devils will undoubtedly be the Huskies. Washington is not only currently ranked the second in the country, but it was also the National Semifinalist last season. The Huskies have not been unranked since 2008, ten years before Duke’s inaugural season.
Washington returns 13 players this season, including three of the team’s 2018 All-Americans. The Huskies added nine players in the off-season and also returned one, Morganne Flores, from injury. Flores led the Pac-12 with 74 RBIs in the 2017 and was one of two Washington players to ever clock 100-plus RBIs in less than 110 games.
The Huskies are also strong defensively and they return 87 percent of their innings pitched from last season. Washington had the second best ERA mark in the country, finishing the season only allowing 1.18 runs per game. Four Huskies are on the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year watch list to begin the year including Taran Alvelo, Sis Bates, Morganne Flores and Gabbie Plain.
I don’t expect perfection,” Young said. “I just want to see them come out and compete. We’re going to make mistakes...who’s going to be the team that picks themselves up and continues to fight? I think we’ve got a gritty group ready to do that.”
Facing four experienced and talented opponents, this tournament provides Duke with invaluable opportunity to grow as a program and to develop further before getting into the meat of the season. The Blue Devils next match-up will be at Campbell in Buies Creek, N.C. before Duke will return to Durham for its home opener next weekend.
“I think the kids really understood after going through the full year why we preached and harped on so many little details because it really played out over the year,” Young said. “I really think this group gets it now and we’ve gone from being a real coach-led program to the kids are leading themselves. They want what we want for them which is really fun.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.