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Duke fall sports preview: Volleyball

Payton Schwantz, Duke's 2018 leader in kills, will be key for the Blue Devils this season.
Payton Schwantz, Duke's 2018 leader in kills, will be key for the Blue Devils this season.

After earning their first NCAA tournament berth since 2015, the Blue Devils didn't make much of a splash on the national stage, falling 3-0 to Loyola Marymount in the opening round of tournament. And after graduating four upperclassmen—including an elite middle blocker in Leah Meyer and an explosive double-double machine in Andie Shelton—Duke will have to make up the difference with a roster of explosive yet inconsistent youth.

Player to look out for: Payton Schwantz

With a roster that needed a jolt on both sides of the ball to take it to the next level last season, Schwantz fit the bill perfectly as a do-it-all outside hitter who was both aggressive on the attack and quick on her feet defensively. And with the Blue Devils again stuck with potential question marks up and down the roster, Duke can at least take solace in the fact that its junior outside hitter will undoubtedly rise to the occasion.

In the 2018-2019 season, Schwantz led the Blue Devils in kills, utilizing an impressive standing vertical with a vicious spike to shred through opponents all season. Unfortunately, the Frisco, Texas native's impressive arm wasn't always on target, leading to a hitting percentage of .223—average at best on a team that has struggled time and again to limit errors. If Schwantz can keep up her impressive numbers on the attack while improving on her hitting accuracy, Duke will have its offensive motor to build a lethal attack around.

Although sophomore Mackenzie Cole will be able to hold the floor as a gifted defensive specialist, Schwantz should again be able to add some much needed relief on the defensive end. Averaging 2.48 digs per set and putting in numbers resembling that of a libero, the junior Blue Devil made countless frame-saving plays throughout last season and should be primed to do just that in 2019.

Most anticipated matchup: Aug. 31 vs. Stanford

There's no sugar coating it: the Blue Devils will enter this early-season matchup as massive underdogs, and for good reason.

In Duke's already challenging non-conference schedule, the Cardinal towers over the rest as the reigning national champions and one of the most dominant programs the Blue Devils have faced in recent memory. Last season, Stanford earned a staggering 34-1 record that included an undefeated ledger in the Pac-12—one of the most competitive conferences in the nation.

Furthermore, the Cardinal will be returning their team leaders in kills, assists and digs on an already stacked freshman recruiting class, by all accounts making Stanford back-to-back preseason title favorites.

Although Duke will have the deck stacked against it, the Blue Devils can take solace in the fact that they are effectively playing with house money. Stanford offers a challenge that a young Duke core has never faced before, and one that can offer an invaluable learning experience. And if the Blue Devils can pull off the seemingly impossible in the same vain as last year's improbable win over then No. 5 Pitt, Duke will achieve one of its greatest victories in program history.

Worst case scenario:

The biggest question mark for the Blue Devils will be how they fare at facilitating offense. Without Shelton to contribute a majority of assists, much of the load will fall on redshirt junior Sarah Nelson and freshman Camille Nazor. This load may be too much for this inexperienced pair to handle, and Duke's offense stalls. Coupled with poor hitting accuracy, the Blue Devils can never put together a fluid offense—dashing hopes for a repeat tournament appearance.

Best case scenario:

With Schwantz holding down the fort and sophomore Ade Owokoniran and junior Summer Brown growing into key roles as hitters and blockers, the Blue Devils are one of the most explosive teams in the nation on offense. Coupled with a much-needed injection of experience with graduate transfer Lauren Cline, the steady presence of senior Samantha Amos and the return of senior Natalie Schilling from injury, opponents will struggle to contain Duke's many offensive options. With such a dangerous attack and a talented defensive specialist in Cole, the Blue Devils make the tournament again, proving that last season's run was not a fluke.

Editor's note: This is a part of The Chronicle's daily series of previews for Duke's fall sports, the rest of which can be found here.

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