With the softball season just past the halfway mark, beat writers Em Adler and Micah Hurewitz dished out their midseason awards.
Duke came into the 2021 season receiving votes in a couple national polls and selected to finish fourth in the ACC.
It is currently ranked in all four major polls and sit first in the conference standings.
Behind dominating pitching and a blitz of an offense, the Blue Devils beat then-No. 5 LSU, drubbed then-No. 21 South Carolina and have only dropped conference games to Notre Dame and Clemson. Shelby Walters and Peyton St. George are each amongst the top-five in the ACC in ERA and have pitched over 70% of the team's innings, while only two everyday starting position players have an OPS under .800.
Duke can, and has, beaten its opposition in every which way, running to a 26-3 overall record, its best start in program history. In just the team's fourth year of existence, it’s pointless to talk further about program records—it’s safe to say they’re almost all being written and rewritten this season.
Most Valuable Position Player
Adler: Jameson Kavel
Having started in all of the Blue Devils’ games thus far, senior Jameson Kavel has delivered nothing but consistency to both Duke’s offense and defense. The Duluth, Ga., native has somehow almost replicated her scorching hot 2020 season from the plate, and has been a major factor in Duke’s incredible first half of the 2021 campaign. She leads the team in hits, while ranking third on the squad in on-base percentage. Kavel has scored 27 runs for the Blue Devils and drove in another 21, and while she may not be the team’s best power hitter, she places the ball in the gap, giving her the team lead in doubles. Kavel has undoubtedly been the fire the Blue Devils needed to keep up the momentum throughout this current difficult stretch of conference competition.
Most Valuable Pitcher
Adler: Shelby Walters
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When it comes to pitching, run prevention is the name of the game. And not a single player in the entire country with as many appearances or as many innings as Shelby Walters has matched her 0.53 ERA. The Blue Devil infield defense has struggled this year, which is a large reason for the 10 unearned runs Walters has given up, and it’s a testament to Walters’ focus and determination that she’s gotten so many outs while relying on a defense with the fifth-lowest fielding percentage in the ACC. With Duke’s first no-hitter under her belt and a couple more no-hit and perfect game bids narrowly faltering, no one’s done more to affect the team’s winning than Walters.
Hurewitz: Peyton St. George
Just a glimpse at a St. George outing can be enough to cement her as the team’s most valuable pitcher. The Mechanicsville, Va., native recently tied the school single-season wins record with 11, set the strikeout record with 98 and sits in the top tier in many pitching statistics nationally. Additionally, her eight complete games and four shutouts illustrate her durability and consistency throughout the year.
Most Valuable Fielder
While the Blue Devils lead the ACC in runs scored and are second in ERA, their defense has been a far cry from top-tier. That being said, Duke does boast a quality outfield, anchored by Kavel. The four-year starter has made centerfield her home after spending her freshman year at shortstop and left field. Kavel displaced Kendyl Lange to take the centerfield gig this year, and hasn’t looked back. As one of the fastest players in the conference, she accentuates her range with excellent jumps on balls hit to the gaps and behind her. With her range allowing the corner outfielders to shade toward the lines, there isn’t a fly ball you can expect to hit the ground.
Most Improved Player
Walters has been a delightful surprise for the Blue Devils in the circle. Her batting average against has decreased from a rocky .271 in 2019, to .225 in 2020, to .163 this season. Her team-high 13 losses in 2019 is now a relic of the past as Walters is now hanging one behind St. George for the team lead in wins with 10. If there is something she has improved on the most, it is probably her ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the infield. After giving up 32 extra-base hits in her freshman campaign in 2019, she has only surrendered 10 this season, and the co-ace is now on track to set some personal and school records as she carries her cool temperament with the ball in her hands into the latter half of the season.
Adler: Kelly Torres
With only one freshman being a regular in either the lineup or rotation, this award is won almost by default. But Kelly Torres came into the season as the team’s backup catcher, and has played well enough on both sides of the plate to push three-year starter Jazmine Moreno to the bench. Torres started the season out hot and has cooled off a little bit as of late, but she remains a hitter capable of making good contact and getting on base at a great clip, and is already a solid defender and framer.
Remaining Series to Watch
Adler: Florida State (20-6, 8-2 in the ACC), April 9-11
Whether Florida State or Virginia Tech is the best ACC team outside the 919 area code is a hot debate, but for Duke, Florida State should be the tougher stylistic matchup. The Seminoles' four wins against current top-16 teams have proven that they can beat anyone in the country on a good day, and they often do it through suffocating defense and slap-hitting you to death. For a Blue Devil team that has recently struggled to convert with runners in scoring position and suffers from mediocre infield defense, Florida State will be a true test of Duke’s weaknesses.
Hurewitz: Virginia Tech (20-5, 13-5), April 2-4
Following a difficult Clemson series, Duke faces its toughest competition of the season when No. 14 Virginia Tech comes to Durham for a four-game series. Now trying to rebound from back-to-back losses, the Blue Devils have to get through Virginia Tech and strikeout-shutout machine Keely Rochard. Rochard, likely to start at least three of the four games in the series, has struck out 100 batters over her last eight starts, so everyone in Duke’s lineup has to be at the peak of their performance to get runners on base and across home plate. Even a split series would be a feat, considering Duke is now in the midst of the most difficult conference stretch of the season.