Finally in the NCAA tournament, the scrappy Duke softball team, unfazed by the tournament buzz, narrowly won another ballgame.
The No. 13-seed Blue Devils defeated UNC Greensboro in the opening game of the Athens, Ga., regional at Jack Turner Stadium Friday afternoon. Led by a dominant pitching performance from junior Shelby Walters, Duke managed to score on aggressive base running from junior Deja Davis and a home run off the scoreboard, fittingly hit by the program’s all-time home run leader Caroline Jacobsen. Despite only two runs from the offensive side, the strong pitching was enough to give the Blue Devils a 2-0 victory and the program's first win in the NCAA tournament.
“We love scoring first and continuing to apply pressure and then it just becomes a chess match,” head coach Marissa Young said. “What we do well is find ways to score runs in different ways and it takes the pressure off of us—that we don't always have to come up with that extra base hit or that long ball to be able to score. We can move people around and use our speed as well.”
Walters returned to her home state for Duke’s first-ever tournament game—she did not disappoint.
Following a dominant performance in the ACC Championship game against Clemson last Saturday, the Georgia native tallied five shutout innings, only allowing four hits and two walks. Mirroring the approach from last weekend, Young gave the ball to senior and ACC tournament MVP Peyton St. George for the six-out save to seal the historic win for the program.
Walters’ outing didn’t come without any trouble, however, as Greensboro put two runners on base in three straight innings.
“Coach [Young] was telling us to envision every seat is full and you're out there, bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, and just imagine the most stressful situation you can be in, so then every other situation seems like a walk in the park,” Walters said after escaping the jams unscathed and earning the win.
In addition to her catcher Kelly Torres, she relied on her defense to keep everything calm when trouble was mounting on the bases.
“My teammates were always out there joking around, and they really helped me to just keep a level head and not make the moments too big,” Walters said.
The Spartans, also awaiting their first tournament win, struggled to convert when they had opportunities, as they finished the afternoon 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and had a costly error that allowed the first run to score in the bottom of the first inning. These missed chances and Duke’s ability to exploit miscues was crucial in the Blue Devils’ victory, which put them one game closer to advancing in the tournament—another potential Duke first.
To start the game, Duke’s season hits leader Davis reached base on a leadoff single, stole second and then advanced to third on what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt from Gisele Tapia. The speed of Tapia forced the Spartans catcher to rush the throw to first, which allowed Davis to touch home, propelling Duke to the early lead. Aggressive base running has been a trend for the Blue Devils this season, who have used steals, sacrifice bunts and hit-and-run plays consistently throughout the season.
“Deja [Davis] is amazing in the leadoff spot. It really is just like a good, ‘Okay we're good, you don't have to be so perfect out there,’” Walters said. “Her doing that the first at bat—it really just set the tone for the game…. [Davis] is just a force of nature.”
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It was important for Duke to get that first run on the board early, as Greensboro pitcher and Southern Conference pitcher of the year Morgan Scott settled in nicely after the two runs crossed in the first two frames. The early lead also allowed Walters to feel as confident in the circle as she had said she was.
With the Blue Devils facing tougher pitching, Young emphasized that her team need not change the approach in the batter’s box or on the basepaths.
“We're playing just the way that we played to get here. I think that that's really important—you can't try to change your philosophy,” Young said. “Each game it seems like somebody in the lineup steps up and has an exceptional day and today it was Gisele Tapia and Caroline Jacobson.”
Duke will face Georgia Saturday at noon, with a Blue Devil win putting them in a favorable position to punch their ticket to the Super Regionals Sunday.