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'They were gritty': Duke volleyball splits pair of matches against rival North Carolina

Outside hitters Ade Owokoniran (pictured above) and Payton Schwantz have become one of the fiercest duos in the ACC.
Outside hitters Ade Owokoniran (pictured above) and Payton Schwantz have become one of the fiercest duos in the ACC.

CHAPEL HILL—There’s only one word to describe this year’s Duke volleyball team: gritty.

After losing its first match against North Carolina Friday 1-3 (24-26, 17-25, 25-20, 16-25), the Blue Devils fought a grueling Sunday battle to win 3-1 (25-21, 24-26, 25-18, 25-21).

No. 14 Duke entered Chapel Hill undefeated but still with a chip on its shoulder from two losses against its Tobacco Road rivals last season. Given that both rosters were relatively similar to last year, this was sure to be the most challenging and competitive weekend of the Blue Devils’ season, and it did not disappoint.

The weekend double-header mirrored a classic redemption story, with Duke falling in disappointing fashion Friday before coming out with a vengeance two days later, displaying a gritty quality that kept the team focused through the highs and lows.

“We talked about that being something that we want to be known for and we felt like we failed at that on Friday night,” head coach Jolene Nagel said Sunday. “And I do think tonight, they were gritty, and they hung in there in the long rallies and kept their discipline.”

While it was a team effort through and through, much of the credit of the drastically-different Sunday match must go to outside hitter Payton Schwantz, who played her best game of an already-impressive season. After posting a hitting percentage of .067 with five errors Friday, the senior dominated Sunday’s rematch, posting an astounding hitting percentage of .500 without making a single error until halfway through the second set. 

“As a player, [Schwantz] can come back from stuff like that, not lose confidence in herself and still know she can get it done,” Nagel said. “She did exactly that tonight, so that was exciting to see.”

The first set Friday opened with Duke (4-1, 4-1 in the ACC) in a state of dominance that one would expect from an undefeated team. An evenly-distributed effort by the Blue Devils granted them a comfortable 20-13 lead, but then they got a little too comfortable. The Tar Heels (2-2, 2-2) chipped away at the lead until the two teams were tied at 24, and by that point, there was nothing Duke could do but watch as the set fell into its opponent’s lap. 

Duke never recovered from that opening set Friday. It did steal the third set to keep the match alive, but all that did was give North Carolina the kick it needed to close out the match in the fourth.

“I think that left a really dirty taste in our team’s mouths, in their stomachs,” Nagel said. “And they knew they were better than they showed, because we let up a little bit mentally.”

After just a day of rest, Duke drove back into enemy territory once more to put on a final effort. And while the Blue Devils had their usual smiles on, there was vengeance in the air of Carmichael Arena.

It was immediately clear that Duke wasn’t messing around this time. Its game plan was airtight and its execution even tighter. The Blue Devils took an eerily-familiar 20-13 lead in the first set, committing no errors in the process. But the threat of another Tar Heel comeback was looming, and it almost came to fruition. Fortunately, a much-needed timeout gave Duke the kick it needed to close out the crucial first set.

“I wasn't thinking about Friday night, at the time,” Nagel said. “But I just hope that they weren't thinking about Friday night when we were up in that first set.”

The second set, however, nearly put the brakes on the Blue Devils’ redemption story.

Duke shot out to another promising lead, and appeared to take a dreamlike 2-0 advantage in the match. After a long rally and the score at 24-22 in the Blue Devils’ favor, North Carolina spiked the ball out of bounds, with the scoreboard flashing to show Duke winning the set. 

Within seconds, however, chaos broke out on the Tar Heel bench—they believed they saw Duke outside hitter Ade Owokoniran clip the ball as it flew out. After official review, the call was overturned and the point was instead given to North Carolina.

The rattled Duke team proceeded to drop four straight points to lose the set, turning what would’ve been a commanding 2-0 lead into a tie as the teams retreated to the locker rooms.

But the Blue Devils wouldn’t let that heartbreaking moment get the best of them.

Duke emerged in the third set unshaken, proceeding to outwork the Tar Heels on every play, including a point that lasted well over a minute. Eventually, the Blue Devils triumphed, blowing the Tar Heels out of the water in the third set and scratching and clawing their way to victory in the fourth.

“If a team came at them, they wanted to push back harder,” Nagel said. “They wanted to have more focus amongst themselves on the task at hand throughout the entire match, and I think they did that today.”

Duke is next scheduled to take the floor Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 at home against Virginia Tech after its original two matches against the Hokies were postponed.

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