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Column: After disappointing end to season, Duke baseball still has a bright future to look forward to

<p>Alex Mooney enjoyed a successful freshman season at Duke in 2022.</p>

Alex Mooney enjoyed a successful freshman season at Duke in 2022.

A year ago, the Blue Devils embarked on a remarkable journey from a middle-of-the-pack ACC program—one that had only dipped its toes in the postseason—to conference champions and a legitimate threat to climb higher.

The month of May provided something special to head coach Chris Pollard’s squad in 2021. Twelve straight wins that included those that sent Duke into the ACC tournament and then some followed up a mediocre start. Prior to that stretch, I wrote a column about how that team could blast off if and only if the stars aligned. And that they did. Star hitters Joey Loperfido and RJ Schreck propelled the remarkable end-of-season run that got Duke its first ACC title in 60 years. Despite losing several key leaders to the draft, the retooled 2022 team had high aspirations—maybe some that would require a historic longshot story to repeat itself. 

“We take a lot of pride in where we started and where we are right now,” Pollard said before the season began. “We're not done. And there's some goals that we've had for this program for the last several years that we haven't fulfilled yet.”

After finishing at 22-32, nearly the exact opposite win-loss record from the prior year, the 2022 Blue Devils will have to wait to reach those goals, namely an appearance in Omaha.

Bringing in a top-10 recruiting class is no easy feat, and is truly a testament to what Pollard has done in his 10 years in Durham. But he did it this past offseason with the commitments of shortstop Alex Mooney, pitcher Jonathan Santucci, outfielder Devin Obee and nine others. Mooney, a top 2023 draft prospect, also said preseason that he has high aspirations for his time at Duke.

“Watching Duke win the ACC championship really fired me up and made me want to go be a part of that, and hopefully help take our team to Omaha,” he said.

This year’s team fell short of possibly the first step in that path—simply qualifying for its conference tournament. The month of May—which saw Duke go 14-2 in 2021—left this season’s younger, less-experienced team sputtering to a 4-10 finish and the second-worst conference record. While a year ago the Blue Devils celebrated an Erikson Nichols walk-off to cap a Duke sweep, this time around was instead marked by a crushing sweep at the hands of the same conference foe, Virginia Tech.

The wonders of last year—18 homers from Schreck, understated consistency from Luke Fox and Marcus Johnson and leadership from numerous starters who traveled to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt in a 2019 super regional and finish one win away from Omaha—were passed on to the younger class of Blue Devils, less acquainted to the trials and tribulations of realizing those goals.

Fittingly, however, they eked out a win against N.C. State when the seniors—the freshmen of that super regional team—were honored for the final time at Jack Coombs Field. Chris Crabtree, Wil Hoyle and Schreck were thrilled to take on the roles of leaders and mentors, and while their year didn’t end as they had hoped, the senior class gave something more meaningful to the younger Blue Devils. 

Duke baseball is establishing a culture—carefully crafted by a long-term coaching staff and a batch of players that understand what winning means. The 2022 seniors were there for that super regional, a perfect game, a dominant start to a season cut short and an ACC title. Then they were there for the arrival of the future generation, one determined as ever to pick up where the prior group left off. 

“We still kind of live with that sting of getting close and not getting over the hump. And I think there's a hunger there to break through that door,” Pollard said in February.

That door is made of concrete in the ACC, with several top-10 teams and a plethora of pro talent. 

Winning just over 40 percent of your games and going 10-20 in conference hurts. A lot. And in retrospect, not much about 2021’s Blue Devils looked like a championship team either, that is until two-thirds of the way through the season. This year’s squad just never got that spark, but Pollard may have the right mix of ingredients for Duke to break through that wall before long.

High expectations will surely return come next spring, but with a year of experience under their belts, the Blue Devils yet to celebrate their 21st birthdays will be knocking on that door.

Micah Hurewitz | Sports Managing Editor

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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