In many ways, the Blue Devils enter this season as a wildcard.
Although Duke managed to string together key wins at the end of last season to earn an NCAA tournament berth, the Blue Devils lost four starters and bring in a host of new faces to enter 2019 as a relative unknown. With an incredibly challenging weekend set to start the season, Duke will have the chance to compare itself to some of the best talent in the nation.
The Blue Devils will travel to Charleston, S.C., to kick off its 2019 season in the College of Charleston Classic. There, Duke will take on Michigan State Friday at 4:30 p.m. followed by reigning national champion Stanford Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in TD Arena. Although the Blue Devils face arguably its toughest matchup of the season in just the first weekend, this weekend's campaign will give Duke the chance to showcase many new faces in its scheme as well as highlighting key returners in Payton Schwantz and Ade Owokoniran.
"It gives me chills to get an opportunity to get out there and compete this weekend," Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. "Both of these opponents are formidable... What we have to think about with our scheduling is we have to schedule tough. The RPI comes into play when it comes time for the NCAA tournament, and we're going for it."
The Blue Devils will start their trip to Charlotte with against Michigan State. Although the Spartans represent the lower end of the Big 10, Duke will have a golden opportunity to test its new pieces against power five competition.
Led by junior Alyssa Chronowski and sophomore Naya Gros, Michigan State run an efficient, highly accurate offense propped up by a solid two setter rotation. Although the Spartans suffer on defense, notching just 11.9 digs per set last season, the Blue Devils will need to prepare for Michigan State's accurate outside hitters. However, with a defense run by breakout defensive specialist Mackenzie Cole, Duke shouldn't have too much to worry about from the Spartans.
However, while Friday's contest should be a good primer for the season, there's no way it could prepare Duke for what's to come on Saturday.
Returning most of a national championship-winning roster—including its team leaders in kills, digs and assists—the Cardinal enter the College of Charleston classic not just the heavy favorite through the entire weekend, but again for another banner-winning berth. Led by seniors Jenna Gray and Kathryn Plummer, Stanford runs a relentless offense that outpaced its opponents 14.8 to 11.6 kills per set. With a well disciplined defense led by Morgan Hentz—one of the most gifted liberos in the nation—even Duke's firecracker hitters will have trouble breaking down the Cardinal.
Although the weekend represents a tough challenge for the Blue Devils, it gives a key opportunity to help mold a relatively young but potentially explosive squad.
Schwantz returns as the Blue Devils' previous leader in kills and will be joined by Owokoniran as two of Duke's most dangerous hitters. Coupled with the return of Natalie Schilling—who missed all of last season due to injury—the Blue Devils will have an offense that will undoubtedly turn heads in South Carolina.
"Natalie is a very talented volleyball player who has had adversity with some injuries," Nagel said. "She's a senior now, and she got hurt maybe only the second week of October her sophomore year. We thought we'd have her back last year but we had to deal with another injury. This kid has worked non-stop. She brings skill to our team, she brings her volleyball I.Q., and has such a team mentality."
With so much of its roster in flux from last year, the Blue Devils will have a chance to define a team identity come this weekend. But with such steep competition this weekend, establishing that identity will be nothing short of a trial by fire.
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