Heading into this weekend, Duke was well aware that it had its work cut out in order to defend its home court in the Blue Devil Classic. To make matters worse, the Blue Devils were forced to play without star outside hitters Ade Owokoniran and Payton Schwantz.
Though the atmosphere was electric in Cameron Indoor Stadium as the Duke faithful came out in full support for the matinee showdown against Georgia on Saturday, the Blue Devils lost this contest to a powerfully hitting Bulldog team 3-0 (25-11, 25-19, 25-23), capping off a disappointing weekend in which it lost three times in straight sets. Freshmen Camille Nazor and Lizzie Fleming attempted to step in for Owokoniran and Schwantz, but it just was not enough.
"We really didn't know until Thursday night that we would not have [Schwantz and Owokoniran]," head coach Jolene Nagel said. "That didn't give us a lot of [time].... We had to depend on our younger players to go ahead and get some experience there on the court. I think our team had to take on a load without having two players that have been out there, and that put more pressure on some people."
Amongst the few rays of sunshine in an otherwise unsuccessful weekend was Nazor. Against Georgia (6-3), the setter led the squad with seven kills in addition to her thirteen assists. She often relied on crafty dumps to catch the Bulldogs off guard and had several astounding blocks against the dominant Georgia hitters.
There were moments throughout the game when Nazor’s inexperience at the collegiate level showed, as she was called for numerous double-hits, sometimes in high-risk situations, that hurt the Blue Devils. Nonetheless, she will still be expected to make significant contributions to this weakened Duke offense.
Nazor’s rollercoaster of a game was best described by Nagel.
“She has a lot of potential, there is no doubt about it, and we're just trying to develop her.... She does have big upside due to her size and her talents as a setter, but it is also a freshman coming into the college game with a lot of changes, not only in the game and the tempo and speed of everything, but also just being new as a freshman and adjusting to being away from home.”
Nazor’s change as the season progresses, as well as how Nagel plans to juggle her setters in an effort to produce the most potent Blue Devil lineup, will be key to follow.
Right there alongside Nazor was Fleming. The middle blocker had a season-high six blocks on the day in addition to her .357 hitting percentage. Unlike Nazor, Fleming had no errors on the day and showed some serious maturity for a freshman.
One of the two remaining freshmen on the roster, Gracie Johnson, did not have a game that she will want to reminisce on for too long. Johnson finished up with a hitting percentage of .036. This poor performance brought her four-game stretch of seven or more kills per game to an abrupt end. On the bright side for Duke, Johnson showed resilience throughout the game, as she was a defensive standout.
The match was not all grim for the Blue Devils, though, as Nagel expressed some satisfaction with her team’s play as the weekend progressed.
“Early on we did not handle [the absence of Owokoniran and Schwantz] very well.... I think we very well could have had that second and third set today. [It is] disappointing that we did not, but I think this team is a work in progress and we are going to get better as a result from this weekend.”
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The Bulldog hitters—facilitated by setter Meghan Donovan—appeared to be too much for the Blue Devils to handle from the very beginning of the game. Georgia came out at a blazing speed and jumped to a 6-1 lead that they never relinquished the entire first set. Donovan was the offensive catalyst throughout the match, finishing with 45 assists.
In the second and third sets, Duke put forth a much more valiant effort against the fierce Georgia hitters, but they were just too much for the Blue Devils to handle. Duke (5-5) had an uncharacteristically low amount of blocks, which proved to be a problem considering blocking had been such a significant factor in their success.
The defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs came a day after two other lopsided losses, with Duke falling 3-0 against both American and Northwestern Friday.
The Blue Devils have a few off days before they travel to the Hofstra Invitational in New York to take on a slew of tough opponents, with the mighty No. 10 Oregon Ducks topping the list. With a little luck, Owokinaron and Schwantz will be ready to go on Friday and reignite this struggling Duke offense, but in the meantime, the Blue Devils will lean on the collective efforts of a few talented freshmen and experienced upperclassmen.