Cameron Indoor Stadium may be devoid of Crazies this fall, but the long-awaited return of sports in the historic building has finally come.
The Blue Devils opened the season with two dramatic wins against N.C. State Wednesday and Saturday. The Wednesday match was tight back-and-forth, with Duke eking out a 3-2 win (25-19, 23-25, 25-8, 23-25, 15-12), while Saturday’s was a more decisive 3-1 victory (25-16, 25-22, 23-25, 25-21).
The Blue Devils are coming off one of the worst seasons in program history, but have taken their long offseason to do extensive training and team-building that appeared to pay off against the Wolfpack. The clearest change from last year is the team’s communication and composure, both of which are absolute necessities to win volleyball games.
“We've worked really hard on our culture ever since we started last January, and the team has taken it to heart,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. “And I think that's helped our communication a ton on the volleyball court.”
Duke (2-0, 2-0 in the ACC) was able to secure two valuable wins, but the feats were not accomplished without their fair share of difficulty. On Wednesday, the Blue Devils made a habit of letting their guard down after winning sets, causing their error totals to rise dramatically in both of their lost sets. The same could be said for Saturday’s match, but this time, they caught themselves before too much damage was done.
This habit of decreased aggression and energy following success was the driving reason behind many of last season’s losses. Time and time again, Duke would win its first sets against skilled opponents, but would proceed to let the match slip away.
As the Blue Devils lost the third set Saturday, it looked like the match was going to go in the same direction. However, the team has matured, and the players all maintained their composure as the pressure rose, avoiding communication errors and sloppy play.
“I just think that you're seeing a more mature group—personally, but also as volleyball players,” Nagel said. “And they've improved their skills to do their hard work.”
Leading the charge in Saturday’s match was senior Peyton Schwantz, who finished with 14 sets, eight digs and only two errors despite playing almost every point.
“It was great to see [Schwantz] have the night tonight like she did, because she's a really good volleyball player, and hard to stop,” Nagel said. “But it's not just her offensive skills. Her passing and her defense are really great, too.”
Despite playing almost every game last season, Schwantz was battling injuries that prevented her from practicing and carrying the load as much as the team needed her to. Now that she is healthy again, she is proving to be a pivotal piece in turning this team around. Schwantz posted nine kills and 16 digs in Wednesday’s opener as well.
While Duke boasts a relatively deep and balanced roster, the Wolfpack (0-2, 0-2 in the ACC) largely depend on their star senior Melissa Evans. The California native put the team on her back both nights, as N.C. State struggled to hold off Duke’s offense.
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After her astonishing 14 kills and 17 digs weren’t enough to pull the Wolfpack past the Blue Devils Wednesday, she stepped up her game even further, finishing Saturday’s match with 19 kills in one fewer set than the previous match.
“[Evans is] definitely a really great volleyball player, great athlete. And smart, a smart volleyball player too,” Nagel said. “She does get a ton of attempts, and I think our team maybe didn't block her as much as we would have loved.”
Duke is off to a strong start, but it’s important that it doesn't forget its struggles in the 2019 season. The issues that plagued the Blue Devils are still liable to return, and the team still has a lot of work to do to improve upon its 10th-place preseason ranking in the ACC.
That work will continue next week when the Blue Devils take on Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Friday at 6:30 p.m.
“I want them to exhale, to smile and be proud of what they accomplished this week,” Nagel said. “But come Monday, we’ve got to get back at it and really prepare for a road game with UVA.”