NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A year ago, Duke found itself in a similar situation—just a game away from the College World Series, but sent home packing for the summer while its opponents packed for Omaha.
While last year’s Blue Devils only returned two of their eight regular position players, this year’s roster will look mostly the same come next spring.
“I think we have a chance to be really good [next year],” head coach Chris Pollard said. “We have about 450 innings out of 575 innings or so coming back, seven out of nine starters in the lineup coming back. What I think is an incredibly talented incoming class, maybe on paper the best one that we’ve had.”
Of the eleven athletes who started at least 20 games for Duke this past season, nine will continue donning the blue and white into 2020. Furthermore, the Blue Devils will also return nine pitchers who appeared in at least 10 contests on the mound this year, including two of their three weekend starters.
The potential hidden gem of that weekend rotation? Bryce Jarvis. In two magical NCAA tournament starts that had many rekindling memories of Graeme Stinson’s 2018 postseason dominance, Jarvis stepped up when the lights shone brightest.
It all started in Morgantown, W.Va., with Duke needing a win over the host team—No. 15 West Virginia—to secure a spot in the regional final. The crowd was rowdy in the Mountain State, tossing jeers and insults all game, but none of that seemed to bother the Blue Devil righty.
Entering the contest with just a 4.63 ERA on the year, Jarvis absolutely dominated the Mountaineers, tossing 126 pitches en route to eight innings of shutout ball, including a career-high 11 strikeouts.
“I thought the difference in the ball game was the composure and poise that our kids showed, the way we competed through it,” Pollard said after the win in Morgantown. “And that starts and ends with Bryce Jarvis and the job that he did on the mound. It was one of the best jobs, if not the best job, I’ve ever seen of just managing the moment and not letting everything else going on around you affect your ability to perform.”
But it didn’t stop there.
While Vanderbilt starter Kumar Rocker’s no-hitter rocked the sports world this past Saturday night, what most fans won’t remember is the performance it overshadowed. With Duke just one win away from a College World Series bid, Jarvis pitched a game that—on most nights—would’ve sent his team to Omaha.
Just 20 miles from his Franklin, Tenn., home, the Brentwood Academy product took the mound against opponents he grew up with and friends and family watching from the stands. And he dominated yet again.
Jarvis allowed just a single run in seven innings of work, reaching 126 pitches for the second consecutive start. But in a pitcher’s duel for the ages, he was simply outdueled, and the Blue Devils lost 3-0.
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“I’ve known Bryce since he was in 6th grade,” Vanderbilt catcher Phillip Clarke said. “He’s from Franklin, I’m from Franklin. He’s a great pitcher. His stuff was really working tonight, he mixes his pitches really well. We had a good game plan for him but he still executed.”
Following his shutout of the Mountaineers, the New York Yankees did take a chance on Jarvis in the 37th round of the MLB Draft. But the rising junior is very unlikely to sign, and should be back in Durham next season ready to prove his run wasn’t just a two-start fluke.
On the other end of the field, Ethan Murray is ready to lead Duke’s young offensive attack. The rising sophomore was named to the NCBWA Freshman All-America second team after batting .305 this past season and leading the Blue Devils with a .391 on-base percentage. But it isn’t the numbers or accolades that truly show why Murray is meant for Pollard’s program.
On May 21 against Notre Dame, the Crozet, Va., native took a fastball to the face that required surgery. Less than three weeks later, he was in the lineup in Game 1 against Vanderbilt, wearing a mask at the plate and in the field and going 1-for-3 with three runs batted in and two runs scored.
“[Murray’s] just a really tough player,” Pollard said heading into the super regionals. “He’s a really good competitor. If you ask him, he wanted to be out there this past weekend [in the Morgantown regional].”
But the sweet-swinging shortstop isn’t the only bat ready to return with a spark next year. Team home-run leader Michael Rothenberg and catcher Rudy Maxwell—who both slugged solo shots in the finale against the Commodores Sunday—will add to a lineup that’ll likely feature multiple members from Duke’s sophomore, junior and senior classes, the perfect balance of youth and postseason experience.
“A lot of it goes back to the culture,” Pollard said after a practice prior to heading to Nashville. “We had some former players that were there this weekend in Morgantown and I told those guys, ‘You’re a huge part of this, because the foundation you laid and the job that you did of building a culture is what this team’s had to rely on this year.’”
So while the Blue Devils will miss the likes of captains Kennie Taylor, Hunter Davis and the rest of the 2019 senior class, Duke’s new upperclassmen will ensure their legacy lives on for years to come.
And as this winning culture continues to cycle between classes, Pollard will have finally built what he set out to do when he accepted the head coaching job in 2013. Not a team—a program.