Through the early goings of the season, the Blue Devils have been able to lean on explosive sophomore Ade Owokoniran to spearhead their scoring.
And through the opening two matches of the Duke Invitational, Owokoniran delivered, leading the Blue Devils in kills en route to a 2-0 start to the weekend.
Although injury forced Duke to play without its star hitter Owokoniran in the third match, new faces down the Blue Devil roster ensured Duke’s ability to notch its fourth straight win.
The Blue Devils took down Wofford 3-1 (26-24, 23-25, 28-26, 25-18), UNC Wilmington 3-1 (21-25, 25-23, 25-11, 25-22) and Appalachian State 3-0 (25-22, 25-20, 25-21) over the weekend in Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Duke Invitational. The Blue Devils adjusted to not having their leading scorer in Owokoniran, instead relying on senior Samantha Amos and freshman Gracie Johnson to step up in scoring, giving Duke the momentum to secure yet another win.
“Overall, the weekend went really well for our team,” junior Payton Schwantz, who finished against Appalachian State with a team-high 10 kills, said. “We did a really good job controlling the ball, and when we can do that all hitters are at a go, and it’s pretty fun to watch when we can get the ball up there.”
In Duke’s two matches with Owokoniran on the floor, the sophomore Blue Devil made herself known as one of the most dangerous outside hitters in the ACC.
The Raleigh, N.C., native earned 17 kills apiece over Friday’s double header, complimenting her offensive game with 17 total digs. Although the Blue Devils’ hitting accuracy was again in question—Duke (4-1) barely broke a .300 hitting percentage against the Terriers (1-6) and followed that up with a shaky .257 against the Seahawks (6-1)—the Blue Devils were able to rely on constant production from Owokoniran to win out. With the sophomore sidelined, Duke had major production from other faces that have had a slower start to the season—including a breakout game from Johnson.
In her first ever start as a Blue Devil, Johnson filled in admirably with nine kills and just four errors. While the Mountaineers (2-4) struggled to keep up with Duke, the freshman Blue Devil was there to cut the momentum of the visiting team. Fittingly, it was Johnson who closed the evening for Duke. With the Blue Devils holding a sparse 23-21 lead out of a timeout, the young outside hitter set the table for Duke with a tip in, then secured the win with a back-left spike right through Appalachian State’s blockers.
“We didn’t have to adjust too much [without Ade],” Schwantz said. “We have a fairly deep roster and we have a lot of confidence in our players, whether they’re on the court 24/7 or not... Gracie [Johnson] did awesome. She had the opportunity to come a semester early, and I’ve really seen a lot from her. It’s really great to see what she has developed in that short amount of time.”
Of course, Johnson wasn’t the only Blue Devil to step up, and Duke appreciated a massive boost from one of its veteran leaders stepping up in the clutch.
Amos, the lone senior on the squad, was the first of the Blue Devils to step up in Owokoniran’s absence. In set one against the Mountaineers, the Blue Devils saw themselves in as large as a 19-15 deficit. However, a monster block from the Pittsburgh native sparked Duke’s response. Amos continuously made key plays at the net throughout the night, as the outside hitter teamed up with sophomore Lily Cooper to help give the Blue Devils 14 block assists.
Duke will look to continue to push with the wind in its sails through the week, as the Blue Devils have yet another matchup in its packed nonconference schedule Tuesday against UNC Greensboro.
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“We do have a lot of matches here, which is a few more than I would love to have,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. “But at the same time, it has given us an opportunity to see different people on the court, and see competition, which is something that we need to know what we have as our strengths and weaknesses.”