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'They lead in their work ethic': Owokoniran, Johnson lead Duke volleyball to undefeated weekend

The Blue Devils clinched three straight victories this weekend, overcoming some tough losses, playing as a unit and revealing some shining stars for the rest of the season.

Duke hosted the Duke Classic this weekend, taking on both North Carolina Central and Long Island Friday and Cornell Saturday. The Blue Devils handily defeated the Eagles 3-0 (25-13, 25-23, 25-17) and went on to conquer the Sharks 3-0 (25-12, 25-22, 25-19) as well. The Big Red came out strong the next day, but the Blue Devils took another 3-0 win (25-22, 25-20, 25-20). 

These past couple of days and victories have been extremely pivotal for the team, as it was coming off of two hard losses against Michigan and North Carolina the previous weekend. Head coach Jolene Nagel attributed this bounce-back to “an improvement in our off-blocker defense” and “[working] on our blocking.” However, none of the weekend’s success would have been possible without the outstanding performances of senior Ade Owokoniran and junior Gracie Johnson .

“[They] have really been good leaders for us, both on and off the court,” Nagel said. “They lead in their work ethic. In their commitment. And in doing the right thing: making sure we’re getting our work and studies done, and in recovery. They just have been phenomenal.”

In Saturday’s match against Cornell, Owokoniran accumulated a whopping 11 kills, with Johnson coming in close behind with 10. This is no surprise, as in the two earlier games in the Classic, Owokoniran had eight and 13, respectively, and Johnson demonstrated similar success with 13 and four, respectively.

“When I was a freshman, I had great mentors like Ade, [who] gave me confidence and the mentality to go after it… it’s not hard [to model after them],” Johnson said of her relationship with Owokoniran. 

Throughout the back and forth nature of the Cornell game, each notched a few showstopping, pivotal points. Johnson ended a tight first set with a crowd-roaring spike and another kill in the second set to bring back momentum. Owokoniran helped the team pull away in the first set, forcing a Cornell timeout with a kill, and adding in a timely kill at the end of the second set to put the Blue Devils (9-2) up 22-20.

“Watching Ade go out there and kill it made me want to do the same thing,” Johnson said. This special bond created an incredible dynamic duo and team energy on the court Saturday, as Johnson noted that “the team’s level of performance really elevated [her] own.”

Other key offensive players brought the same energy against Cornell (4-4). Junior middle blocker Lizzie Fleming was just as impressive, with nine kills to finish the match, and freshman Rylie Kadel added in seven kills. 

“[The young players are] going to improve faster because they’ve got this leadership ahead of them in our juniors and seniors,” Nagel said of the connection between the older and younger players.

Nonetheless, with every offensive move and every kill came an equally as important defensive move. Senior Mackenzie Cole stood out as a leader throughout the weekend, with 15 and 18 digs on Friday, and 18 more to close out Saturday. When points went back and forth, Cole stepped up and helped create consistent serving (something Nagel mentioned was essential to their success), while also being a supportive and communicative teammate. 

Overall, the Blue Devils were able to bounce back this weekend after the past week’s losses against the Wolverines and Tar Heels. This took a stand-out performance from the dynamic duo of Owokoniran and Johnson, but above all else, it took the team’s willingness to push each other, make adjustments as needed and rely on the examples of some incredible upperclassmen to teach discipline and create strong bonds. 

Duke takes on Boston College Friday night for its first ACC game of the season. The Blue Devils will look to continue their trajectory upward and use the solid momentum from this weekend for the future.

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