Upon returning from a year of studying in Rome, Gracie Johnson showed up to Duke as a freshman with a Michelangelo-esque degree of flawlessness to her game, putting it on full display Friday night.
On Duke's Family Weekend, parents were piling into Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch the Blue Devils defeat Virginia Tech 3-1 (25-12, 23-25, 25-18, 25-17). Duke was firing on all cylinders the entire game, but the show was stolen by Johnson, the freshman outside hitter.
Blue Devil head coach Jolene Nagel made it clear how impressed she was with the freshman.
“Each match that [Gracie’s] gone out there on the court I think she is getting stronger and stronger. [She] is playing with more confidence and is playing more consistently. [It is] definitely really fun to see her in action with how successful she is being but also she is just a joy to be around too. It has been really special to see that happen for her and it has been very helpful for our team”
The Virginia Beach, Va., native finished the night leading the team with 14 kills and added on 16 digs to help lead the team to victory. Johnson hammered the line most of the night, taking advantage of the poor blocking positioning of the Hokies.
When she was not ripping balls by Virginia Tech defenders, the outside hitter was dashing all over the court, covering her own hitters and digging ferocious attacks from the Hokies.
“It’s been amazing. I didn’t even expect to be playing this much so I think that everyone has been super supportive of me out there,” said Johnson. “[They] really encourage me to go out there and take some swings and pass as many balls as I can.”
Though the night resulted in a Blue Devil victory, it was not all smooth sailing. After getting obliterated in the first set, the Hokies came back and snagged the second set from the Blue Devils. There was clear momentum shift in the arena as Virginia Tech came out strong in the third set.
Duke was able to create separation midway through the third set and never looked back.
Coming to the aid of Johnson was leading hitter Ade Owokoniran and Payton Schwantz. Both hitters have battled through injury this year and Friday night marked the first time that this trio of hitters have all clicked during the same game.
Schwantz showed why she was on the preseason All-ACC team to start this season with her 12-kill performance. Her kills had some extra heat on them and it appeared that her nagging ankle injury had subsided for the time being.
The junior took over in the third and fourth sets. Her maturity was obvious as she detected weak points in the Virginia Tech defense and went into overdrive. She hammered fastballs at Hokies, knocking them back on their heels until Duke was victorious.
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Owokinaron loved to strike in pairs last night. The Hokies could have gotten deja vu on several back-to-back Duke points as she put together several kill-kill or block-kill combos. Though her hitting percentage was a subpar .111, Owokoniran was able to give enough to put her team on top.
This win gives the Blue Devils back-to-back ACC victories. With eight games remaining in the season, Duke faces long odds at sneaking into the NCAA tournament, but it is not out of the question. Their first task is to take down rival Virginia on Friday and then head to Pittsburgh for a difficult matchup, the Panthers having only one loss in the entire fall campaign.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.