You just need to score one more run than the opponent to win the game. Duke started its tournament run with two one-run games, and came out hoisting the ACC Championship trophy after a third.
Following its victory against No. 2-seed and defending conference champion Florida State Friday, the Blue Devils were victorious again Saturday against No. 1-seed Clemson in the ACC Championship game at Ulmer Stadium in Louisville, Ky. Facing the Tigers’ star freshman pitcher, Valerie Cagle, Duke was able to match Cagle’s shutdown pitching with a much-needed strong start from its own junior ace Shelby Walters. Scoreless through five innings, it was the Blue Devils who put the first run on the board in the sixth and senior Peyton St. George locked down the last six outs to secure the program’s first-ever ACC Championship.
“I couldn't be more proud of this team and this coaching staff. I am really thankful for our athletic director Kevin White and Todd Mesibov for starting softball and entrusting me to build this program,” head coach Marissa Young said. “I knew from the start Duke softball was going to be a championship team and I'm so thankful for all the kids that believed in my vision. We got everybody on the bus, in the right seat, and we believed. This team fought hard. We had to beat two of the best teams in the country and pitchers in the country to do what we did and just really proud of their fight and resilience to get here.”
After the Blue Devils struggled to get runners on base against Clemson’s pitching, the sixth inning began with a Deja Davis bloop single, a walk and a wild pitch to advance both Duke runners into scoring position. On a 2-2 count with no outs, sophomore left fielder Kamryn Jackson hit a slow dribbler to short, on which Clemson’s infield had no play other than to first base as Davis scampered home to put the first and only run of the game on the board.
“We're just so excited, first ACC win in program history—there's no words. We’re just amazed,” Jackson said after driving in the winning run.
In the bottom of the seventh, senior shortstop Jameson Kavel fittingly made the final play to end the game on a hard grounder—Kavel has been the offensive leader for the team through much of the year, and employed her strong defense at multiple positions to anchor the team as it labored through the heart of the season.
The championship game was a classic pitcher’s duel, as a rested Walters brilliantly bounced back from a rough outing in the quarterfinals Thursday, tossing five innings of three-hit ball to keep the Tigers in check. On the other side, Cagle, who threw every pitch of the Tigers’ championship-game tournament run, struck out 13 Blue Devil batters en route to a complete game two-hit gem.
“Today we just kept fighting as [Cagle] pitched an amazing game. And we just kept trying to put runners on base to score,” Jackson added.
St. George, who entered the game for Duke to start off the bottom of the sixth, last pitched a complete game in the semifinal victory Friday. The Mechanicsville, Va., native polished off the game with two shutdown innings, three strikeouts and an elated throw of her glove as the ball hit the mitt of first baseman Rachel Crabtree on the final out. St. George has been a part of many of the program’s biggest moments, from leading Duke to its first-ever ranked win against Texas last spring, to Friday’s clutch finish and Saturday’s six-out save, and her most-recent efforts were recognized at the end of the tournament when she was named MVP.
“I just knew that I didn't need to do anything differently than what I've been doing and I knew if I made the moment too big, then I would have gotten away from what I've been doing to succeed,” St. George said.
Duke’s season began with a big win against then-No. 5 LSU, followed by a 20-game win streak that extended into late March. A tough 1-9 stretch against the ACC’s top competition had the Blue Devils on their heels, but it was not enough to knock them down as Young’s “Team Four” finished the season with another 15-game win streak that has extended through the conclusion of the conference tournament.
“In the midst of the struggle, we told [the team] that it was going to prepare us for the tough games in the postseason, and it was going to help prepare us and be resilient and you're seeing that we don't clam up in those tight moments because we've been there before,” Young said.
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In the matchup between the newest additions to the conference, Duke (fourth season) and Clemson (second season) each put together fantastic teams to earn top spots in the conference and a bright outlook in the upcoming NCAA tournament. The Blue Devil victory certainly demonstrates a shift in the conference, as the youngest programs will look to build upon historically strong starts.
Duke now must await its name being called as the NCAA tournament field is set—the ACC tournament win now means the Blue Devils have an automatic bid and will be one of several teams to represent the conference in the NCAA tournament. As the No. 19 Blue Devils finished the season with a 42-10 record and recent tournament wins against No. 10 Florida State and No. 13 Clemson, Young’s team expects to be a high seed when the bracket is announced Sunday at 9 p.m.
“I think we strive under pressure and I think we've had a lot of close games this season that we've either walked-off or had to hold a one-run lead and I think that's going to really help us win into the postseason when the games keep getting bigger,” St. George said.
The next games will be Friday through Sunday as a part of the NCAA regionals, a four-team double elimination tournament with the winner advancing to the Super Regionals.