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Duke softball falls to Florida State in semifinal thriller at ACC tournament

<p>Despite six straight runs, Duke fell in the ACC tournament semifinals to Florida State.</p>

Despite six straight runs, Duke fell in the ACC tournament semifinals to Florida State.

One year ago, Duke made its first ACC tournament breakthrough, upsetting Florida State to get to the conference championship game against Clemson. Facing that same stage again one season later, the Blue Devils played a thriller but came up just short.

No. 2-seed Duke lost 8-6 to the third-seeded Seminoles in the ACC tournament semifinals Friday, a rematch of the 2021 semifinal in which a third-seeded Blue Devil team upset No. 2-seed Florida State en route to its first ACC title. Duke started Peyton St. George, who started last year’s matchup; but where she allowed two earned runs in a complete game in 2021, she gave up five runs in two innings of work Friday. The Blue Devils scored six straight runs in response but coughed up three runs in the sixth for the final line.

“I told the team, ‘This time of year, postseason, it's a battle back-and-forth.’ And obviously, we weren't on the end of the outcome that we wanted to be,” said head coach Marissa Young. “But I was really proud of the way that they continued to fight and compete, and even to the end, we had an opportunity. So it was a good test for us, and I think that the lessons we can learn from it are definitely going to help us into the NCAA tournament.”

Duke and Florida State entered last year’s semifinal as two programs with renowned pitching, and the only big change from 2021 to 2022 was the Blue Devil offense suddenly exploding. The first inning certainly lived up to the game’s billing. For Duke, St. George may have faced five batters, but got four to two-strike counts while giving up a close walk on a full count and a ground-ball single; Florida State’s Danielle Watson tossed a perfect frame on just 12 pitches.

Things changed quickly in the second inning. St. George started with another full-count walk, but recovered to induce a groundout. Florida State designated player Chloe Culp then stepped up to the plate, she of a .167 batting average in 48 at-bats this season; St. George hung a fastball high to Culp, and she hit it out of right field for a two-run home run. Within the next two pitches, Seminole shortstop Josie Muffley laid down a bunt that St. George couldn’t field, and second baseman Kaley Mudge dropped a long double down the left-field line. St. George induced another groundout, before again missing with a fastball—this time to right fielder Kalei Harding, who hit Florida State’s second two-run home run to make the lead 5-0.

Sophomore pitcher Jala Wright relieved St. George after the latter allowed another hard single to lead off the third inning. Wright allowed another runner to face two-on with one out but settled to strand both while recording two strikeouts.

Wright clearly found something in the dugout between innings, as she sped through the Florida State lineup in the fourth and fifth innings. She notched three strikeouts, all swinging, without allowing a Florida State batter to reach base.

That momentum wouldn’t carry into the sixth inning, however, despite Wright pitching with a lead for the first time. After her first four pitches resulted in a single, steal and a spiked throw from graduate student Jameson Kavel while trying to get the lead runner, Florida State had two runners on with one out. Mudge then narrowly beat Kavel’s throw for an RBI infield single and stole second without a throw.

The score sat tied at six, with runners again at second and third with one out. Then Florida State third baseman Sydney Sherrill hit a liner just out of Kavel’s reach. By the time the ball rolled to the warning track, two runs had scored and Sherrill stood at second celebrating the 8-6 lead.

The Blue Devils scratched a run across in the bottom of the second, with right fielder Caroline Jacobsen singling, advancing on a groundout and scoring on a double from third baseman Ana Gold. But Duke couldn’t manage a baserunner in the third inning.

The Duke offense finally came alive in the fourth inning, starting on Watson’s second pitch, which Crabtree rocketed out of straightaway center. A single from second baseman Kristina Foreman and a fielder’s choice put one on before catcher Francesca Frelick hit a no-doubter to center field, cutting the Blue Devils' deficit to 5-4.

Despite Florida State staff ace Kathryn Sandercock coming on in relief, the Blue Devils continued their hot hitting in the fifth. A pair of singles and steals put two in scoring position with two outs. Florida State then intentionally walked Foreman to load the bases for right fielder Caroline Jacobsen, who laced a go-ahead two-run single into center. Foreman was thrown out trying to advance to third on the play, but Duke ended the fifth inning with a 6-5 lead.

The Blue Devils seemed to still have Sandercock’s number in the sixth, forcing her to throw 15 pitches in the inning's first two at-bats and making hard contact a couple of times. But it didn’t matter, as one of their hard-hit liners found a Florida State glove, and center fielder Kamryn Jackson struck out to strand a runner at second.

Sandercock retired all three Duke batters in order in the seventh to end the Blue Devils' ACC season.

“I think every opponent provides us potential challenges in one way or another, and showing up and playing hard and not worrying about the jersey is really important,” said Young. “And for us, today, to face Florida State and the type of pitchers that they have in the circle, that's definitely going to prepare us for what we're going to see into the tournament.”

The Blue Devils will now wait to find out their NCAA tournament seeding Sunday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. With Duke ranked in the top 10 of three of the four major polls, the program figures to host postseason games for the first time in its five-year history.

“These kids have worked hard all year for [getting to host NCAA games],” said Young. “And obviously, [we] should have had that last year, but circumstances were out of our control. And I'm just looking forward to them having the opportunity to experience that at home.”


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