With the first pitch of the spring season still nearly four months away, Duke is beginning its preparation for its conference title defense.
Last Tuesday marked the Blue Devils’ first team practice of the new year, and the first time the team assembled officially since Liberty booted it from the NCAA tournament in June. Coinciding with the practice, which comes ahead of 11 total scrimmages—including a three-game “Fall World Series” and two exhibition games against Davidson and N.C. State—was a chance to hear from 10th-year head coach Chris Pollard and veterans of the Blue Devils squad.
“Coming out of the ACC Championship last spring, there's a lot to be excited about with this group,” Pollard said. “I think we've had six really productive weeks of what we call ‘indy work’—small group work—and I think our guys are bored with that and they're ready to move on to a full team practice and get out there and play the game the way it's intended to be played.”
The aforementioned first practice, which took place during a rain-soaked afternoon at Jack Coombs Field, consisted of mostly fundamental drills such as tracking fly balls and baserunning.
Duke enters the 2021-22 season after a 33-22 campaign had it barely reach the conference tournament, only to claim the championship and advance to the Knoxville, Tenn. regional where it was eliminated after three games. Last season consisted of a few outstanding player performances, which led to the departure of seniors Joey Loperfido and Michael Rothenberg, juniors Ethan Murray and Jack Carey and graduate student Peter Matt through the MLB Draft. The Blue Devils will bring back breakout star RJ Schreck, who hammered three homers in an NCAA tournament game en route to an unimaginable 18-home run campaign for the now-senior outfielder.
“I could never imagine in 100 years that ever happening…. I put on a little bit more strength and kind of kept the same swing pattern so the balls that used to be flies to the warning track were elevated and I was seeing the ball well and looking forward to continuing that,” Schreck said.
Schreck also added to his resumé a second month of summer ball, as the Los Angeles native played in the Cape Cod Collegiate Summer League for the Cotuit Kettleers. He batted .231 over 14 games in Massachusetts.
A theme for the Blue Devils after a year of strict COVID-19 policies and a summer of mostly individual workouts has been the more normal-feeling brotherhood of the team, which features 16 newcomers that comprise a solid transfer class and the ninth-ranked freshman class in the country, according to Baseball America. Everyone was in agreement that the team would benefit from the more relaxed restrictions on team activities.
“I've been really proud of our veterans, our leaders for working hard so far in these first six weeks on campus, to really try to reestablish that chemistry and connectivity,” Pollard said.
“Having those extra 10-20 hours a week that we're spending off the field with each other this year is just gonna elevate us to new highs and I’m really excited about it,” Schreck added.
Duke’s incoming class notably features Perfect Game’s top-ranked incoming freshman, infielder Alex Mooney from Rochester Hills, Mich.
“He's really talented but for me, the really encouraging sign is just to see how much he's bought into our culture and wants this entire program to be good,” Pollard said of his first-year shortstop.
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The program would not be successful and as welcoming to incoming freshmen if not for the culture established and maintained by the veterans. With more experience than nearly anyone is Chris Crabtree, who joined the program in 2017 and has played in 140 games in a Blue Devil uniform.
“[Carrying on the team identity] is definitely a big responsibility and something that I feel very honored and humbled to take on, but in terms of the day-to-day process, not much changes,” Crabtree said. “Socially, keeping that team bond together and maintaining that culture is something that is a big focus of mine.”
Along with Schreck, Crabtree looks to bring back more power, as the graduate student is coming off a season in which he slugged .587 and mashed 13 home runs.
On the other side of the ball, Duke is set up for a strong season on the mound. Returning to the rotation is senior Cooper Stinson, junior Henry Williams and sophomore Luke Fox. A new addition could be coming to the rotation to fill the fourth starter role. And Pollard won’t have to look far—junior Marcus Johnson, who served primarily as a closer, said he looks to be transitioning into a starter role for the upcoming season.
“It is definitely fun being able to be the guy to finish games and pitch in a lot of the big moments, close out the ACC championship,” Johnson said. “I’m looking to take a bigger step this year and hopefully fulfill a starter role for us.”
The 6-foot-6 right-hander frequently went over two innings in relief, as he compiled 56 innings in 30 appearances with a 3.05 ERA.
The fall season is designed for trying new things, such as Johnson on the hill to start a game. Pollard, who now owns a 278-199 record at Duke, emphasized the importance of using the fall season to the Blue Devils’ advantage.
“We got to strike a balance between development and competition,” Pollard said. “You want to have days where you can get in the lab and work at things, but at the same time, we’ve got to show up and compete every day.”
Crabtree acknowledged that nothing is set in stone, even for a four-year veteran like himself.
“There's easy motivation because we still haven't accomplished the goal of getting Omaha, and we continue to be close but we haven't pushed through that door,” Pollard said of his team’s work ethic after another tournament run fell short.
The Blue Devils are itching to get back into the swing of things as game action nears.
“I'm hoping that N.C. State brings a lot of fans and we get some Durham fans out and it'll just give them their first taste of heated ACC ball with everybody going and give us a good chance to see what our team is like early on in the season,” Schreck said.
Duke’s matchup against N.C. State—a rematch of the 2021 ACC Championship game—will be held Oct. 22 at 5 p.m. at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Fall World Series, which will be open to the public, will take place Nov. 11-13 as the Blue Devils’ last game before the spring slate begins in February.