The 2021 season has been a wild ride, featuring some of the greatest moments in Duke softball’s short history, and this past weekend’s series against North Carolina created another one.
The Blue Devils hosted the Tar Heels as No. 24 Duke continued to rebound from a discouraging 1-9 stretch. The series started and ended in dramatic fashion, with the Blue Devils' Jameson Kavel-led offense continuing to accomplish improbable feats and walking off the Tar Heels in both Thursday's and Sunday's games on their way to sweeping the four-game series.
“It just builds our confidence that we can win in different ways, and [I’m] really proud of the team's fight that we were able to grind it out and finish off in that last inning,” Young said about her team’s two walkoff wins in the same weekend. “I think our kids have just done a good job of making adjustments from day to day or game to game and understanding what are those little things we need to do to be successful.”
In the first game Thursday, the Blue Devils went down 3-2 behind a solid Shelby Walters outing. Entering the seventh inning with the top of the order due up, Duke (34-10, 22-10 in the ACC) strung together a miraculous rally and capped it off with a two-run single off the bat of Kavel to win the ball game.
“Those moments don't get too big for [Kavel] and she just goes in there like it's any other at bat or any other game, but at the same time knows when more is on the line and she's able to stay within herself and do what she does best,” Young said.
In Sunday’s game, seeking the sweep after clear-cut wins in a Friday evening doubleheader, Duke kept the margin close until North Carolina (12-23, 8-17) tagged Walters for three runs in a chaotic fifth inning. Despite managing three hits all game, the Tar Heels exploited Duke’s first error in four games, which happened to be off Kavel's glove who was once again playing shortstop.
It was Kavel’s first error as an infielder, and it was costly—only adding on to the ever-growing schism between the Walters’ earned runs and runs allowed count, which now shows 14 unearned runs attached to her name.
With Duke down by two coming into the final frame, it seemed unlikely that the Blue Devils could recreate Thursday night’s magic. That is, until you realized the hot bats of Deja Davis, Gisele Tapia and—you guessed it— Kavel were due up. With Davis on first, Kavel smashed a pitch just over the glove of North Carolina’s center fielder for the game-tying homer.
“[Kavel is] resilient. I mean that kid is just a true utility player for us, has just been our MVP the last few years in the program and you see why,” Young said. “[Kavel] is so even-keeled, her temperament, and I think that's a big strength of hers—she doesn't get too high and doesn't get too low."
Duke loaded the bases after the Kavel home run, and it became just a matter of when the Blue Devils were going to finish off the series, and Kristina Foreman was there to deliver a bloop single to give Duke the sweep.
The team recently set the program record for most wins in a season, pitchers Peyton St. George and Walters have been setting more Duke records and this Blue Devil squad has earned its position in the country as a force to be reckoned with—and much of that credit can be laid in the hands of Young.
Young was hired by North Carolina as an assistant coach under Donna Papa in 2014 after a stint as a head coach at Concordia, and in that time she helped learned lessons she used to build Duke's program.
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“My time there was invaluable and I learned a lot as a coach—coaching there and learning a lot about the conference which I think helped prepare me to build the program here at Duke,” Young said.
As Duke had not yet formed its softball program, Young never faced the Blue Devils while in Chapel Hill, but she got her first shot against the Tar Heels as a Duke coach in 2018, when her nascent softball team was swept by its Tobacco Road neighbors. After going 1-5 against her former team, this weekend had Duke as heavy favorites against a North Carolina team yet to win a game away from home, and the Blue Devils lived up to the expectations.
“Building off of not winning, winning a couple games and then being able to sweep—obviously really good to be where we are in such a short period of time as a program,” Young said.
The Blue Devils now have a well-deserved week off before returning to action against Campbell May 5 before a weekend series with N.C. State starting May 7.