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'Our best season yet': Duke softball reflects on historic third year

Senior captain Raine Wilson has seen the Duke softball program grow immensely since its inaugural 2018 campaign.
Senior captain Raine Wilson has seen the Duke softball program grow immensely since its inaugural 2018 campaign.

It was the Thursday afternoon of spring break and the Blue Devils were planning to play Florida State the next day. 

Senior captain Raine Wilson had just finished weightlifting when she got a message on her phone: Duke had suspended all athletic events because of the coronavirus.

So she and another senior went out to the softball stadium and sat in center field, texting the other team members to join if they wanted. Within 15 minutes, the whole team was sitting in a circle on the bright green outfield. They laughed, cried and had an impromptu senior day. 

“At that point for me, it was just a matter of enjoying the presence of my best friends,” Wilson said.

For the Blue Devils, the virus cut short their best start to a season in the young program’s history. They played only 27 of their 55 scheduled regular season games, but that didn’t prevent them from having a groundbreaking year thanks to an explosive offense and strong pitching. 

“I’m super proud of what we were able to accomplish as a team,” head coach Marissa Young said. “I think we were on the road to what would have been our best season yet.”

Duke shattered many of the program’s records from its inaugural two seasons, finishing 23-4 overall and 1-2 in ACC play. The team was just about to enter the main slate of conference play when the season was cut short.

The Blue Devils set a new scoring record when they racked up 22 runs against Rutgers Feb. 15 after setting it at 16 just a few hours earlier against Indiana. Meanwhile, sophomore outfielder Caroline Jacobsen set a program record with nine home runs despite the shortened campaign.

The Blue Devils outscored their collective opponents 178-44, and the pitching staff finished with the 10th best ERA in the nation.

The team also took down then-No. 4 Texas on the road Feb. 22, notching the program’s first win against a ranked team and handing the Longhorns their first loss of the season. 

“The last second when the umpire called her out and we’d won the game, it was like this rush of emotion that’s hard to describe," Wilson said of the Texas win. "Just gratitude, just pride wearing the Duke jersey, just grateful to be there with my teammates."

After closing out the season on a nine-game win streak, the Blue Devils were ranked in a major poll for the first time ever when the last ESPN/USA Softball poll of the season pegged them at No. 25. In the final USA Today/Coaches poll of the season, Duke received the most votes of any team outside the top-25.

Wilson said that during the program's inaugural two seasons in 2018 and 2019, the Blue Devils were still figuring out who they were. She credited the players from those earlier teams for helping lay the foundation. But after two years of building, the team saw all its hard work finally pay off.

“The standard didn’t really change," Wilson said. "We were always striving for excellence in all areas, but year three it was a complete, 100 percent buy-in from every single person in the program."

Young added that the staff, which included four new faces as assistants, came together well this year and that the players really bought into the team. 

“So many great things were on the horizon,” Young said. “For me, that’s the toughest part, not being able to see that through.”

But it’s a young program and a young team, and the future looks bright. 

“I’m super excited to have everybody back another year and pick up where we left off,” Young said.

The main difference for next year? Wilson believes it'll be having the confidence of knowing what they’re capable of going into the season.

Wilson also said the team hasn’t talked about what this season’s record could have been—they understand it’s over and they’re looking forward to next year. For now, she’s focused on finishing up the last few weeks of the academic semester.

It remains to be seen which seniors may or may not use the extra eligibility ruling to come back next season, with scholarship funding being a major determinant. But no matter what, Duke has a lot to look forward to.

“We’re just trying to stay where our feet are and do as best as we can knowing that Team Four is coming up, in a long time, but it’ll come soon enough,” Wilson said.

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