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ChronSports’ Top 10 of 2021 — No. 5: Duke baseball captures first ACC Championship in 60 years

With a 1-0 victory over N.C. State, the Blue Devils were Kings of the ACC.
With a 1-0 victory over N.C. State, the Blue Devils were Kings of the ACC.

As 2021 comes to a close, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest stories of the year in Duke athletics. Each day, we will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year for the Blue Devils. 

Coming in at No. 5: Duke baseball wins the ACC tournament over N.C. State, capping off an unexpected late-season rally and securing the program's first conference championship since the Kennedy administration. For the full list, click here.

Bottom of the ninth, two outs, runner on first. With a 1-0 lead behind him, Duke’s shutdown closer Marcus Johnson threw his pitch. It clanged off the bat of NC State's Jose Torres, skyed into right, and was neatly tracked down by right fielder Peter Matt to secure Duke baseball’s first ACC Championship since 1961. 

To even participate in the ACC tournament had been an uncertainty for the Blue Devils last season. The team had a tumultuous start to the year, seeming to only take part in blowout losses or decisive wins. To continue their season, they needed to limit their opponents offensively.

And limit their opponents they did. With more consistent pitching, Duke went on an eight-game win streak (with six against ACC teams) to close out the regular season, securing its tournament spot as the No. 9-seed.

This burst of dominance continued for the pitching staff, allowing the already powerful Duke offense to shine in unlikely win after unlikely win. In the team’s first bout of pool play against No. 5-seed Florida State, the Blue Devil bats tallied five runs in the first inning, with the help of a grand slam from senior catcher Michael Rothenberg. The Seminoles, the owners of the lowest team ERA in the ACC, went on to give up 12 runs in total. This lead held thanks to Duke starter Billy Seidl allowing only one run, and the relief staff, including Johnson, allowing no more. In Duke’s second game of pool play against No. 4-seed Miami, Rothenberg struck again with three RBIs, including a walkoff home run to beat a team that had previously bested Duke three times in the regular season.

In the semifinal, the Blue Devils faced No. 8-seed Virginia, which had demolished the No. 1-seed Notre Dame in its previous game. The Blue Devils denied a similar treatment, with senior center fielder Joey Loperfido launching home runs in the first and the third innings, along with one from shortstop Ethan Murray. Freshman pitcher Luke Fox threw seven innings of two-run ball, with the door once again shut by Johnson.

Duke entered the finals against No. 3-seed N.C. State having never met the Wolfpack in the 2021 season, as the programs’ regular season games had been canceled due to N.C. State entering COVID-19 protocols. The starting pitcher for the Blue Devils, junior Cooper Stinson, paid this no mind and threw his best game of the year, holding the Wolfpack scoreless for six innings. A sacrifice fly from the bat of Duke’s Matt brought home Ethan Murray for the only run of the game, and with Matt’s snag of the fly to right, Duke had won. Tournament MVP was awarded to Loperfido, reasonably so, with his key three RBIs and runs scored. He joined Rothenberg and Stinson as members of the ACC All-Tournament team. 

Unfortunately, after all this success against extremely talented teams that had challenged Duke in the regular season, the Blue Devils went on to fall twice to Liberty in the NCAA tournament after beating the Flames in both regular season meetings. Despite this, the program is in a bright place. With a highly-ranked freshman class and multiple returning graduate students and seniors, there is a lot to look forward to and a lot more history to be made. 

READ MORE on Duke baseball's season:

FEELS LIKE '61: Duke baseball wins first ACC Championship in 60 years

Duke baseball's Michael Rothenberg walks off Miami to send Blue Devils to ACC semifinals

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