Duke and Virginia Tech both entered the weekend looking to hold their place in the upper tier of the ACC standings, and the competitive nature of their two matches at Cameron Indoor Stadium exemplified just that.
Saturday’s match went down to the wire, with the 14th-ranked Blue Devils falling short in the fifth and final set by just two points en route to a 2-3 (17-25, 19-25, 25-16, 25-20, 13-15) defeat. However, the team bounced back with a 3-1 (25-21, 26-24, 23-25, 25-17) win Sunday to split the weekend series.
“We made a couple of defensive adjustments, our team, and then we also did make some offensive adjustments too,” head coach Jolene Nagel said regarding what changed between the two matches. “So I also felt like on Friday night, we were capable of setting a little bit better and also digging more balls. And so we focused on that going into today, and talked about how we were going to set the block as well.”
During both games against the Hokies, Duke (5-2, 5-2 in the ACC) showed its versatility and strength in the middle, staying aggressive throughout the weekend. Going into Sunday, however, the Blue Devils worked on setting the block, allowing them to slow down the ball and score more in transition.
Sophomore Gracie Johnson led Duke with 15 kills Friday, while junior Ade Owokoniran led the way with 18 kills two days later. But it was the play of senior Payton Schwantz that set the tone throughout the weekend.
Schwantz has been one of the Blue Devils’ most consistent players this season, and these two matches were no different, with the Texas native posting a double-double in kills and digs during both matches.
“[Payton Schwantz] is really important to our team,” Nagel said. “She’s a six rotation player. She passes a ton. She also plays great defense. We need her on defense, and we need her on offense as well. So she's an important piece to our puzzle without a doubt.
“Last year she wasn't able to play as much due to injury and everything and we really missed that as a team. So to have her feeling better this year and be able to be out there on the court really, really helps our team have confidence and get some runs going too.”
In addition, freshman setter Sydney Yap stepped up to take on an important role in the two matches, contributing 20 assists Saturday as well as 21 assists and 12 digs Sunday. She had totaled just four digs and zero assists in two career matches prior to this past weekend.
“[Sydney Yap] was mentally very strong. She brought to the matches what she brings every day to practice and just helps our team get better every single day,” Nagel said. “So it was really exciting to see her get out here on the court and play such a big role these last two matches.”
Although the first three sets Sunday were close between the two teams, the Blue Devils were able to perform consistently under pressure to prevent the Hokies (5-2, 4-2) from taking control.
A prime example of this was during the second set. Duke trailed 24-22, but was able to reel off four consecutive points to win the set and take a crucial 2-0 lead in the match. The Blue Devils’ never-give-up mentality played a huge role in the comeback.
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“This team is a positive team,” Nagel said. “They're a grateful group. And they really enjoy each other. I rarely hear negativity.”
Duke takes on Virginia Friday to close out its season. The Blue Devils are tied with Louisville at third in the ACC standings, behind just 7-1 Georgia Tech and 6-1 Notre Dame.