Taylor Swift wasn’t the only one to drop 22 last weekend.
Junior Gracie Johnson had a career-high 22 kills Saturday against Boston College. Combined with only six errors, the outside hitter hit a .340 efficiency, her second-highest of the season.
“She was really good, right from the get-go,” said head coach Jolene Nagel. “That was so exciting to see because she’s a six-rotation player. To see her have that success offensively was great and much-needed by us.”
Despite Johnson’s efforts, the Blue Devils ultimately fell to the Eagles in four sets (26-28, 13-25, 26-24, 25-27). Duke volleyball is now 23-3 against Boston College (15-14, 5-10) overall. The result represents a change in momentum for each team, as Duke went into the game winning three of its last four matches, while Boston College went in having lost four of its five prior matches.
One main advantage the Eagles had over the Blue Devils (15-11, 6-9 in the ACC) came from the service line. Duke had 13 service errors throughout the match and only three aces; the Eagles had 10 aces and 10 service errors. Two of Duke’s aces came from Johnson, who currently leads the ACC in aces with 40 this season.
Duke also had 23 hitting errors, compared to 17 by Boston College. The Eagles had no hitting errors in the second set.
“I think that we hurt ourselves with unforced errors; if we could have minimized those a little bit, I think it would have made our path much, much easier,” Nagel said.
But it’s unfair to define Duke’s performance Saturday by its unforced errors. The Blue Devils improved on their blocking defense since last Sunday against Virginia Tech, a feat Nagel hoped to achieve. Duke had 11 blocks against Boston College, compared to just the three it had against the Hokies.
“I think we made some improvements in our defense. And I think that we played very, very hard and didn’t stop,” Nagel said. “Our team right down to the very end was playing very, very hard.”
Last time the Blue Devils played the Eagles, Owokoniran only had five kills. The Eagles couldn’t stop her this time, though, with the Raleigh native picking up 13 kills Saturday, including multiple from the back row.
Owokoniran’s success Saturday was reflective of Duke’s larger efforts to throw off the Boston College defense where it could. At one point, after Owokoniran got blocked by the Eagles twice during a rally, so Nagel switched freshman Rachel Richardson to the outside and Owokoniran to the right side for a play. Owokoniran earned a kill right away. A few plays prior, after the Eagles jumped early on the block, sophomore Georgia Stavrinides sent a tip onto the 10-foot line for a Blue Devil kill, a weakness she’d take advantage of several times throughout the set.
Throughout the match, Duke also became increasingly productive in how it came out of timeouts. In the third set, a timeout by Duke when it was down 12-17 led to three straight Blue Devil points, thanks to two kills and a block by junior Lizzie Fleming. Duke would use that momentum to gain a lead late in the set and ultimately emerge victorious. In the fourth set, Duke received every point following a timeout called by either team.
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The versatile lineup of the Blue Devils also showed through in Massachusetts. Owokoniran got to play all six rotations on the court, as opposed to her usual three in the front row. Her patience and ability to see the court helped her facilitate the Blue Devils’ defense from the middle back of the court and earn kills from behind the 10-foot line.
Every player on Duke’s roster saw minutes in Saturday’s match. Changing up personnel is sometimes about “just trying to give [the other team] something else to have to defend and think about, and hoping to open things up for ourselves,” Nagel said.
Senior Lily Cooper took over for Stavrinides in the middle blocker position in the third and fourth sets, where Nagel commended both her contributions to play and team morale.
“She came in and gave us a lift. She was able to block some balls, and she certainly always brings a lot of energy when she gets out there on the court,” Nagel said of Cooper, who had three kills and four blocks against the Eagles.
Duke will take on Louisville, the No. 1 team in the country, on the road Friday. The Blue Devils fell to the Cardinals in four sets when the teams faced off in October, but it represented the third unranked team in the 2021 season to win a set against Louisville. Going into the match, Nagel hopes to work on getting back to consistent serving, citing Louisville’s skill in the back row and keep things fast-tempo in practice.
“I do think our team realizes they can do some great things against [Louisville],” Nagel said.
Leah Boyd is a Pratt junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 117th volume.