Duke’s 2019 campaign was one defined by inconsistency.
But the Blue Devils will take improved unity into their first two matches of the season against N.C. State Wednesday at 7 p.m. and again Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Blue Devils’ return to the court as the team looks to rebound following a 5-13 ACC record last season. However, quarantine may have also helped mitigate the struggles with miscommunication that held Duke back in 2019.
“I think we are all super excited to compete against an opponent, and I think this team has worked really hard during this time, during the COVID time, during the time away from each other to really develop their culture,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. “They are a really together unit right now.”
The Blue Devils will rely on captains Kincey Smith and Mackenzie Cole to lead the team. Throughout the preseason, Smith and Cole have helped bring the team together and cultivate a culture that has trickled down throughout the entire roster.
With 11 returning players, the Blue Devils are a deep, experienced unit. Senior Payton Schwantz and junior Ade Owokoniran will be the players to watch, though. As the two highest scoring outside hitters on the team, they have the confidence to control each match from the onset.
Duke defeated the Wolfpack in a five-set thriller last November, and will recognize several returning opponents this week. Senior outside hitter Melissa Evans will likely lead N.C. State offensively after placing third in the ACC in kills last season and receiving Second Team All-ACC honors. Defensively, N.C. State will rely on redshirt junior Kaylee Frazier, who set a school-record with 38 digs in last year’s matchup against the Blue Devils.
This season, however, the Wolfpack will bring a new head coach to Durham: Luka Slabe.
Slabe, who is also an assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team, will serve as the 10th head coach in program history. Entering 2020, N.C. State is also looking to rebound after ending last season with a 6-12 conference record, and is hoping a change at the top will do just that.
The Wolfpack welcome several powerful newcomers to the court as well, as transfer redshirt freshman Sydney Ferguson along with freshmen Hartley Myers and Riley Shaak will all pose a threat up at the net.
“Certainly there are some players that are returning that we played last year," Nagel said. "But if they are running on a different system, I think we are going to have to worry more about ourselves to compete because we really don’t know that much about them right now."
Wednesday’s game will be televised on ACC Network, with Saturday’s contest on ACC Network Extra.
“It’s a televised game. It’s the first one in a long time—they have worked really hard,” Nagel said. “I do not want them to be feeling the pressure. I really want them to be able to have fun together and have fun together out there because I think that is when they play their best.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.