It’s full steam ahead for Duke as it goes into uncharted territory: the ACC Championship game.
The ninth-seeded Blue Devils continued their miraculous run from nearly missing the conference tournament, to now securing a spot in the championship game following Saturday’s 4-2 semifinal win against No. 8-seed Virginia at Truist Field in Charlotte. With freshman Luke Fox on the hill, the Blue Devils got just what they needed—weak contact and a starter going deep into the ballgame while protecting the slim lead the Blue Devils built almost entirely from the long ball. The win also gives head coach Chris Pollard’s team a shot at the program's first ACC title since 1961 in addition to this being its first-ever appearance in the conference finale.
“This has been about winning a championship and bringing hardware back to the room…. They’re relishing that, that’s what this is about for our team,” Pollard said.
The game started out with a bang, as senior Joey Loperfido crushed leadoff home runs to the opposite field in the first—and third—innings. In the third, the captain’s solo shot was followed immediately by an Ethan Murray homer to dead center, giving Duke the 3-0 lead it would need to eventually secure the win.
“This run epitomizes kind of who we are, we kind of seem to do it every year like this. I think it just speaks to how tough we are as a team,” Loperfido said. “It's been really special, so it's a ton of fun and you know there's no reason to start pressing now, so we'll have fun with it.”
Loperfido, an all-ACC second teamer, has had quite the journey to get to this point—he missed time with injuries and missed out on the MLB Draft last summer with it being shortened to five rounds.
“I'll never forget I was sitting on my back porch in June, when [Loperfido] said ‘Hey coach, you know I want to come back to Duke but I want it to be with a ‘C’ on my chest, and I want to be a captain for this program,’” Pollard said. “And he's come back, he's been a captain, he's been a great player. He's been a clutch player. I don't have enough superlatives for what he's done and what he's meant to this team and today was kind of icing on the cake.”
Loperfido also added that “going through COVID last year, I lost a lot of important people in my life, so look back at that and still be here… that's what motivates me.”
The 4-for-5 day from the plate from Loperfido was enough to ignite the Blue Devil offense early, but junior slugger RJ Schreck went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and Duke struggled when it had runners on base. The 1-for-17 mark with runners in scoring position held the Blue Devils back from adding on several additional runs, which fortunately for them were unneeded to defeat a Virginia team that struggled to get runners to scoring position in the first place.
“I really don't think that today was as much about us as it was arguably one of the best bullpens in the country,” Pollard said. “It's a hallmark of [Virginia’s] staff this year—they're amongst the very best in the country at producing swing and miss, and they did that to us some today.… I don't really put that as much on our approach as I do the fact that we had to wait to see really good arms, but we survived, and we were tough enough to overcome it.”
On the other side, freshman Luke Fox had only a night’s notice that he was going to start Saturday’s semifinal over junior Cooper Stinson.
“When I found out, I was really excited, obviously, I had to deal with the nerves going into last night and just staying calm, collected and being ready to go for today,” Fox said.
The nerves—by gametime—were gone. Fox faced his first trouble after the offense provided a cushion, and he had all of his pitches working the strike zone. His sequencing was spot-on, enough to generate plenty of soft contact, some soft enough to even become infield hits, along with seven strikeouts in a career game from the Wisconsin native making his eighth career start.
“I can't say enough about his poise, he has a unique combination of tremendous physical abilities. He's got the fastball up to 94 [miles per hour] and he has two offspeed pitches he throws in the zone. And he's a terrific athlete out there on the mound. And he's got a great mindset for a young guy—he’s way more like a senior in terms of his mindset,” Pollard said of the freshman southpaw.
Fox, a two-time state champion quarterback for his high school football team, was able to rev up the engine just when he needed to in order to finish off his seven solid innings of work with Duke still holding the lead.
“There's a certain level you have to get to to reach your end goal—to reach the peak at the end. And [my football career] really helped me stay strong, through the ups and downs of the season, especially a long season like this one. It's been great for me to fall back on,” Fox said of his two-sport background.
His efficient outing of 96 pitches to get through seven innings with eight hits was also just what the back end of Duke’s staff needed. Sophomores Jimmy Loper and Marcus Johnson closed out the afternoon with two perfect innings, saving their arms for a grueling matchup to earn the ACC crown Sunday afternoon.
“Now you see it here in the tournament where we've had two really deep starts and it sets us up pretty doggone well for tomorrow,” Pollard said.
Prior to Duke getting this 11th consecutive win, Pollard showed his team clips of Duke’s 1961 team earlier in the week to convey the significance of bringing home a trophy.
“It's crazy. I mean that's a really long time ago,” Loperfido said. “And that's kind of been what coach has left us with every post game talk after these wins, it's just ‘1961,’ so we're ready to change that.”
In the championship game, the white-hot Blue Devils take on the winner of the matchup between N.C. State and Georgia Tech Sunday at noon.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.