Duke fall sports preview: volleyball

Ade Owokoniran has been a reliable offensive option in all three of her previous seasons as a Blue Devil.
Ade Owokoniran has been a reliable offensive option in all three of her previous seasons as a Blue Devil.


With 11 returning members, Duke has the chemistry and experience for a season of success. Mackenzie Cole and Alex Springate, two members of the squad who have been invaluable since their start, are the captains for the 2021 season. Four freshmen have also joined along with graduate student Taylor Cole, who is Mackenzie’s sister.

Head coach Jolene Nagel is beginning the 2021 season with an almost identical offense to last season, which notably includes Ade Owokoniran, Gracie Johnson, and Payton Schwantz. Owokoniran and Johnson respectively led the team in kills in the extended 2020 season, but with more than 1,000 kills under her belt, Schwantz is, and always has been, a force to reckon with. The four freshmen joining the offense are middle blockers Rylie Kadel and Ngozi Iloh and outside hitters Nikki Underwood and Rachel Richardson. As the fall goes on, we will get to see how the freshmen blossom on the court led by the current leaders of the program. 

The exhibition match against North Carolina A&T exemplified the age-old lesson of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” The Blue Devils picked up right where they left off with a few new additions and boundless energy. As expected, Owokoniran and Johnson dominated offensively with nine and eight kills, respectively. Springate had 29 assists to nine different hitters, while Mackenzie Cole racked up 16 digs. Duke faced issues with maintaining momentum into later sets at the beginning of last season, but if the exhibition match foreshadows the rest of the season, keeping energy high will not be a problem.

New player to watch: Rylie Kadel

Freshman Rylie Kadel is joining the Duke Volleyball offense as a middle blocker. Hailing from Parker, Colo., Kadel was named the best player in the state by Max Preps in 2020. Kadel also played on the junior national volleyball team from 2017-19 in addition to earning recognition as an Under Armour Second Team All-American in 2020. Her debut during the North Carolina A&T game went hand-in-hand with her high school performances and marked her as a player to look out for going into the regular season.

Returning Players to Watch: Mackenzie Cole, Payton Schwantz

In addition to her role as captain, the ACC named Cole to the Preseason All-ACC team last Friday. As the only defensive specialist on the Preseason All-ACC list, Cole is the defensive player to watch this season. Just last year, Cole had 396 digs, leaving the fans wondering what she has in store for the upcoming season. With someone like Cole taking charge in the back court, Duke will not go down without a fight this season. 

Payton Schwantz returns to Cameron Indoor Stadium for her last season on the team. Returning for her fifth year due to extended eligibility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schwantz’s talent and attitude will likely act as the driving force behind the Blue Devils in the 2021 season. 

“We haven’t played our first match yet, but it has been interesting to hear her contributions so far because she’s been around the block and she’s familiar with Duke,” Nagel said. “She has high aspirations for this season and we’re excited to have her.”

Most anticipated matchups: Oct. 22 @ North Carolina, Nov. 26 vs. North Carolina

Despite countless competitive matchups, the rivalry games against North Carolina take the cake for the most exciting matches of the season. The matchups between the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels never fail to get the crowd excited, especially when it’s anyone’s game. One thing is for sure: Duke has all the potential they need to dominate any opponent, especially with a Duke crowd cheering them on. 

Best case scenario

Last season, the Blue Devils finished the extended season at 7-10 in the conference, their second year in a row with a below .500 ACC record. The COVID-19 pandemic affected this team’s ability to find their rhythm, which may no longer be an issue now that there are less restrictions. Therefore, the ACC should keep an eye on Duke now that is coming off of not only one, but two, subpar seasons with a roster of seasoned players. An ACC Championship could be in the cards with an NCAA tournament appearance also within reach.

Worst case scenario

Worst case scenarios right now? Duke finds itself at the bottom of the ACC. The Blue Devils have an opportunity to show off their experience and talent that they have been building and refining. No matter how the schedule goes as the season pushes on, Duke will need to adapt to make sure it plays its game to the best of its ability. At the end of the day, the Blue Devils' best does not guarantee an ACC title with such strong opponents on the schedule.

Prediction: 15-14, 11-7 conference, 5th in the ACC


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