More so than many Blue Devil squads in the past, it feels almost impossible to get a consistent read on what this year's Duke team's level of play should be.
The Blue Devils have an elite middle blocker unit and two explosive outside hitters in Payton Schwantz and Ade Owokoniran who give Duke an incredibly high ceiling. But miscues, miscoordination and severe momentum drops have shown a startlingly low floor. And both sides of the Blue Devils' play were on full display against Miami.
Duke fell 3-1 (25-21, 25-19, 20-25, 25-21) to the Hurricanes Sunday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Although the Blue Devils showed flashes of the team that just a week ago downed then-No. 14 Oregon, many of the issues that have plagued Duke throughout the season reared their ugly head yet again, leaving the Blue Devils still searching for their first conference victory.
"We need to figure out how to produce more offensively," Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. "Certainly, by the third set we were doing a little better with that, but we have to figure out being able to be successful offensively. We've got to as a team compete from the start, and we didn't compete from the start."
With Owokoniran and Schwantz both struggling with injuries earlier during nonconference play, the Blue Devils were hard pressed to find consistent offense out of the rest of its roster.
The first two frames against Miami were perfect microcosms of this, showing how anemic Duke can look when either of its two star hitters are having an off day.
In the opening minutes of play, the Blue Devils looked completely lost on offense compared to the Hurricanes and their dynamic range of weapons. With Schwantz just coming back from injury and relegated to a bench role, much of the offensive burden would have to come from Owokoniran and standout freshman Gracie Johnson. But unfortunately for Duke, the sophomore outside hitter had an uncharacteristically rough start to play, notching just three kills and a whopping five errors over the first two sets. More troublingly, Owokoniran was surprisingly out of sync, flubbing receptions, missing digs and botching wide-open looks.
Without much production from Owokoniran and Schwantz, the Blue Devils lacked much of the fire that kept them competitive against hard-hitting opponents. Duke was only able to string together 14 kills over the two sets compared to Miami's 26. If it wasn't for the Blue Devils middle blocker core of Lauren Cline, Lily Cooper and Lizzie Fleming holding the Hurricanes at bay with shifty plays at the net, Duke likely wouldn't even be in reaching distance of the opening frames.
"It’s been three weeks that we've been dealing with [injuries]," Nagel said. "I really think the freshmen who have gotten the opportunity to get in there have taken advantage of that and were very smart about that in particular, with Lizzie and Gracie out there. Know that they're learning, but as a collective unit we have to lift our level of competitiveness when we're on the court."
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Duke was never able to consistently fire itself up to break the match open. Although Owokoniran eventually found her groove and finished the afternoon with 10 kills, the Blue Devils struggled to put a coordinated effort behind her. Miscommunications over blocked balls and dives for digs cost Duke during many head-scratching moments. The Blue Devils let Miami steal 10 service aces, all on botched digs. Even with a raucous crowd cheering for a Duke comeback late in the fourth set with the home team down by just a handful of points, the Blue Devils answered their cheers of encouragement with back-to-back service errors, effectively killing any momentum and setting the Hurricanes up for victory.
The final play of the match summed up the afternoon perfectly, with Duke rocketing in some vicious spikes that Miami's Amanda Falck barely popped back.
After a tense back-and-forth, Cooper and Fleming looked as if they were going up for a monster block, but tipped it just a bit early, sending the ball high and back. In what should have been an easy pickup, the Blue Devils failed to callout a whiffed block and lost track of the ball, letting it fall to the ground with no one there for the dig.
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As Duke continues its ACC campaign still searching for a conference win, the Blue Devils need to take stock of what they have and build around it. Their middle blockers, who strung together a monster 15 blocks, have been a consistently strong presence even in Duke's tougher losses. If the Blue Devils can find a consistent option at hitter outside of Owokoniran or Schwantz, Duke has the pieces for an elite offense. Until then, however, the Blue Devils may suffer many more bitter defeats.
"If we can continue to [block well] and get our offense going, it will make our lives so much easier," Nagel said. "I'm proud of the team for being able to get those kinds of blocks, but we have to pick it up on the offensive ends of things and to open things up for us."