As the first part of Sunday’s contest began, it looked as if the Blue Devils would drop their ninth home game and tenth conference game. Then, something flipped.
Duke volleyball looked to solve its season-long home woes with cross-town rival N.C. State rolling into Cameron Indoor Stadium. With the Blue Devils sitting at 11-15 coming into Sunday’s ACC matchup, it was apparent that Duke likely needed to win out in order to have any hope of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
After dropping the first two sets, the Blue Devils mounted an intense comeback to take home a 3-2 victory (25-22, 25-23, 18-25, 22-25, 7-15). With resiliency and execution, Duke weathered the early Wolfpack storm. Standout performances by Gracie Johnson, Payton Schwantz and many others contributed to the comeback, which was clearly a defining moment for this year’s team.
“Really proud of our team. I think it was disappointing to see us go down 2-0, I felt like we were doubting ourselves a little bit, and we have no need to do that,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said “I think this was great for this team because we’ve had the abilities to push through and get some of these matches in five or play a strong fourth set, but we’ve doubted ourselves at times. Hopefully this will help our team understand that [we shouldn’t doubt ourselves] and push through.”
The first two sets went down the wire each time, as the visiting Wolfpack (10-16, 5-9 in the ACC) attacked Duke’s defense with multiple cross-court spikes to keep the Blue Devils on their heels. Sophomore libero Mackenzie Cole was consistently in position to return N.C. State spikes, causing long rallies which defined the match as a whole. The Blue Devils (12-15, 5-9) utilized their height on the front line, with 6-foot-5 Lily Cooper and 6-foot-3 Lizzie Fleming earning a combined 19 blocks on the day.
The Blue Devils needed to adapt quickly to stay in the match. Whether it was different rotations, multiple set plays that put the pressure on N.C. State or pure hustle, Duke found a way to shift the direction of the match in its favor.
“We made some adjustments in our rotations a little bit to try to get some different matchups and basically it was a matter of ‘Guys, we have to execute out there.’ We’re capable of executing at a high level but we’ve got to get it done,” Nagel said. “That was kind of the message there, we got the set but it was very close, we had to work very hard and I was proud of our team for working that hard through that third set,” Nagel said.
Duke played with more discipline as the game wore on, racking up 38 total blocks. In the fourth set, N.C. State took a 19-16 early lead. However, the team in blue responded to coach Nagel’s motivation, and long rallies won by Duke in that set zapped the momentum away from the Wolfpack. The huge turnaround that tied the match at 2-2 set up a winner-take-all scenario for the final stanza.
“We went down 6-2, and it was a little bit of a letdown on our discipline, whether it was in our block, our passing [or] our defense, and we needed to get back to playing volleyball on a sensible level as opposed to giving away points,” Nagel remarked regarding the pivotal fourth set. “I think our team did exactly that, they started having a more disciplined block, we stayed disciplined on our defense a little bit more, and we used our heads and our volleyball I.Q. a little bit better.”
A dominant final set was never in doubt for the Blue Devils, as they took advantage of their newfound momentum in the 15-7 set victory. When the comeback was complete, it was evident that this was one of the most complete outings of the season for the Blue Devils.
Overall, Duke had more than double the number of blocks than the visitors and 68 total kills. Just five serving errors on the day showed Duke's improvements in its execution, which has been a goal of the coaching staff throughout this unpredictable season.
Duke now enters the final stretch of the regular season. The Blue Devils will host No. 2 Pittsburgh in Cameron Indoor Stadium for Senior Day at 1 p.m. this Saturday.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.