Despite a stellar performance from sophomore outside hitter Gracie Johnson, Payton Schwantz’s absence proved to be too much for Duke to overcome against N.C. State.
The Blue Devils fell to the Wolfpack 2-3 (16-25, 25-14, 23-25, 25-23, 6-15) Friday night in a match that could have gone either way. With the injured Schwantz typically being a six-rotation player, Duke was challenged both offensively and defensively without her presence. Johnson, Ade Owokoniran and Lizzie Fleming dominated offensively for the Blue Devils, but Johnson led the way with her .464 hitting percentage. The Virginia native also led the Blue Devils with 15 kills, followed by Owokoniran and Fleming with 11 and nine, respectively. Graduate senior Franky Harrison stepped up alongside the trio and made an impact on defense, leading the team with 20 digs.
“Everyone has had to take on extra without a player like Payton out there,” head coach Jolene Nagel said.
Johnson certainly took on extra, taking advantage of every opportunity given to her. Her aggressive play fueled Duke’s momentum, especially when Johnson opened up the fourth set with three straight kills. She only had two errors out of 28 total attempts, demonstrating that while she was hitting at a high volume, she could maintain consistency as well.
“She was on fire basically. Our setters were doing a great job of getting her the ball in the right situations and giving her some great opportunities to have a night like she did tonight,” Nagel said. “It was fun to see her have so much success offensively, and we needed it.”
Johnson’s air attack would not have been possible without setters Alex Springate and Camille Nazor, who contributed 23 and 16 assists, respectively. The chemistry Johnson and the setters exhibited Friday will be a key factor for Duke as the season progresses.
On the other hand, the Blue Devils (8-3, 6-2 in the ACC) struggled in the fifth set to control the ball enough to effectively set up their hitters. Whenever the Duke setters were forced to make off-net sets, Owokoniran did a great job of keeping the ball in play while still swinging hard. But unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to stay in the game. N.C. State (5-4, 4-4) strung together four kills in a row and then a service ace to bring the set to match point, and after a Johnson attack error, it was all over.
Up next for Duke is Florida State next weekend in Cameron Indoor Stadium. As the Blue Devils prepare for that matchup, the big key will be creating more offensive opportunities for Johnson and company.
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