Anchored by one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, the Blue Devils entered this season loaded with expectations, despite having notched only one top-30 finish since 2016.
So far, the team is fulfilling those expectations.
Duke dominated yet again Friday evening at Sheffield Stadium, cruising past Campbell for its first 7-0 win of the season. Combine that with a 4-1 season-opening victory at Hawaii and three consecutive 6-1 home wins, and the Blue Devils are 5-0 for the first time since 2015. That year, they went all the way to the Round of 16 and finished No. 10 in the final ITA rankings.
“I thought it was a good match,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “Campbell pushed us in doubles in some spots and also in singles and actually that was good for us—to face some adversity and have to push through some tight spots at the end of sets… Obviously, anytime you get a 7-0 win is great, but it was closer than the score.”
It was the freshmen who led the way Friday, with Smith opting to go with four newcomers—Samuel Rubell, Garrett Johns, Andrew Zhang and Michael Heller—in his singles lineup. Johns, Zhang and Heller were met with three Fighting Camels freshmen on the other side of the net, rolling past their opposition and dropping only a single set between them.
Rubell, however, was faced with a greater challenge, matching up against senior Ondrej Labik.
There is no doubt that Duke (5-0) is one of the most talented teams in the ACC. One of the major concerns, though, is whether the Blue Devils’ lack of experience this year will come to haunt them. Friday night, Rubell helped in putting that theory to bed.
The Miami Beach, Fla. native—who was the team’s highest-slated freshman against Campbell at No. 3 singles—cruised past his elder, taking the first set 6-1 before eking out a 7-5 second-set win.
Though four freshmen took control of Courts 3 through 7 against the Fighting Camels (0-1), don’t expect that to be the case every time out for Duke. Smith has seemed to experiment with different lineups for nearly every match this season, taking advantage of the vast depth his team has.
“I have a lot of confidence in a lot more than six guys,” Smith said. “And we can only play six guys at once in singles. One of the goals early on in the year is to try to get a lot of different guys opportunities. Obviously we’re building towards ACC season, ACC tournament, NCAA tournament and it’s just really close in the mid-bottom of the lineup in particular.
“They’re pushing each other in practice and they know it’s competitive for these spots and I like that. It’s different than it’s been the last couple years where we’ve been a lot thinner.”
Rubell also noted the effect this team’s depth has had on competitiveness within practice, something that can help ensure the Blue Devils—despite being so young—reach their maximum potential.
“It can be used as a good thing,” Rubell said of almost nobody having a secure spot in the lineup. “I think it can make guys just work harder, just that much harder and that much more focused. And I think overall ultimately that’s what will make us better.”
No matter what happens around the middle parts of the lineup, Duke would be nothing without its glue at the top—senior Nick Stachowiak.
The Cary, N.C., native fell behind early at No. 1 singles Friday, falling 6-1 in the first set to Campbell senior Raphael Calzi. But Stachowiak fought his way back, gritting out two straight 6-3 wins to clinch the Blue Devils’ undefeated evening.
“[Stachowiak] has gotten really gritty and resilient and he’s just fighting every single point,” Smith said. “He has so much pride for the program, having grown up right down the road. This is his senior year and he wants to leave no stone unturned.”
Duke is rolling right now, with the program looking like it could return to the era of 2010-2015 when Smith led the Blue Devils to six consecutive top-15 finishes. The team will get its first true test of the season, however, when No. 12 Illinois comes to Durham next Friday at 6 p.m.
“Beat Illinois, that’s all we’re thinking about,” Smith said in regard to his team’s goals for the rest of the year. “We’ll see where things go but we’re not too worried about down the road. We’re just worried about improving each day and I think we’ve done a good job so far.”
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