2021 was another ho-hum year for head coach Dan Brooks and company, as Gina Kim was the ACC individual medalist, Duke won the ACC team title and the program reached the NCAA semifinals out in Arizona. But heading into this campaign, things are different for the Blue Devils. Longtime stalwarts Kim and Jaravee Boonchant have turned pro, leaving juniors Erica Shepherd and Megan Furtney as the most experienced members of the program. Losing Kim and Boonchant—the former of whom announced her decision to move on to the LPGA just last month—will surely bring about challenges in the early portion of the season. But the early returns this semester have still been promising, despite some iffy weather in January.
“Energy is good, attitudes are good, we’ve been getting after it, so I think we’re ready to go. We’re gonna see some lower numbers just by being in better conditions, we just have to keep believing and not get too hung up on winter-time scores, which are always a little higher,” Brooks said.
Back in the fall, with Kim on the roster, this group was a clear title contender. Without her match-play expertise, improved ball-striking and prowess with the flatstick, though, Brooks will need Shepherd to play at an All-American level and both Anne Chen and Phoebe Brinker to make sophomore leaps. Time will tell whether it can truly jump into the Stanford-Ole Miss-Oklahoma State class, but Duke is Duke, so don’t expect too much of a drop-off—if there even is one. -Max Rego
New player to watch: Rylie Heflin
Rylie Heflin joins the Blue Devils off of a successful AJGA career in which she registered 21 top-20 finishes starting in 2016. In 2018, she sealed her first victory at the AJGA Philadelphia Junior with a score of 210. Already in the four tournaments she competed in as a rookie in the fall, Heflin has demonstrated composure and technicality, impressing the seven-time NCAA champion head coach Brooks.
“Rylie’s just coming into her own,” Brooks stated. “It’s more just a realization of what she already does well, and she’s learning that she really has everything it takes. She’s got great skills, great hands, great speed. It’s been exciting to see Rylie [Heflin] realize that she’s really quite skilled.”
While it may put Heflin under pressure to replace Kim's veteran experience as a freshman, Heflin has what it takes to rise to the challenge and become a solid addition to the lineup. -Eric Gim
Returning player to watch: Erica Shepherd
She’s got next. Shepherd, coming off of her first taste of NCAAs last May, has dealt with COVID-19 interrupting her freshman season and a knee injury during her second year on campus. All that is in the past, however, and the Indiana native is primed to be the next top piece for the Blue Devils—but not without continued improvement.
“Continued work on her swing, which has been good work, and she’s playing with a much straighter ball flight which is what we’ve been after,” Brooks said on what Shepherd has worked on in recent months.
These strides give Shepherd a chance to add to her already impressive resumé, one that features an All-American selection, a U.S. Girl’s Junior Amateur title and three invitations to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Do not be surprised if the lefty threatens for the ACC individual title, especially if her putter heats up. -Rego
Most anticipated matchup: Wake Forest
Duke’s long-time rivalry with Wake Forest continues into this season, with the first meetup between the two Feb. 28 at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate. With a Demon Deacons team that features a member of the 2019 NCAA Championship runner-up squad in Vanessa Knecht, former Maryland golfer Virunpat Olankitkunchai and three others who played in the ACC tournament, the depth of experience that Wake Forest brings surpasses that of the younger Duke squad’s. Crucially, in a sport like golf, experience matters.
“You can’t [ever] have enough experience. So big tournament experience is so important,” said Brooks. “That’s why throughout the season, any chance that I’ve got as a coach to let my players play at LPGA events or big amateur events, I encourage it because you can’t create that in practice.”
Hence, while the Blue Devils are the underdogs in terms of tournament experience, the significant improvements and the individual standout performances of the Blue Devils will pose a strong challenge for Duke against its ACC rival. -Gim
This could be the sort of “program” year that proves just how much of a machine the Blue Devils are under the tutelage of Brooks and assistant coach Jon Whithaus. Despite the notable departures, the Blue Devils remain among the ranks of the contenders. Shepherd racks up top-five finishes every time she tees it up, Brinker showcases her aptitude from tee-to-green and then some and Chen puts it all together over entire tournaments.
Add in a reliable Furtney and either of the freshmen smoothly sliding into that fifth spot, and you’ve got yourself a team that can knock off Wake Forest for the ACC team title and make a deep run at Grayhawk Golf Club. I’m not projecting a national title—Stanford adding Rose Zhang to a group that won the stroke-play portion of NCAAs last year makes that prediction an easy one—but there’s enough here for a push to the semifinals. -Rego
The departure of Kim presents a strong argument that in the worst-case scenario, Duke may not be able to defend its ACC title. While one individual player does not make up the whole team, relying on a freshman to fill the gap left by a senior is a huge expectation, especially considering Kim played on the 2019 NCAA Championship team and was considered one of the best collegiate golfers in the ACC, if not the entire nation. While Heflin and Sophia Bae are both talented, no amount of skill can surmount nearly four years of collegiate golf experience including the nation’s toughest NCAA tournaments and international competitions such as the Curtis Cup. Add that to the fact that the team must proceed for now without Bae, who has a back injury, and the road to a 22nd ACC title doesn't seem too flowery. Yet, even in the worst-possible scenario, Duke should be able to find its identity and fight its way into the NCAA Championship. -Gim
Rego: 1st in the ACC, NCAA Championship match-play quarterfinalists
Gim: 1st in the ACC, NCAA Championship match-play quarterfinalists
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.