In Duke softball’s fourth year of existence in 2021, the program took the ACC Championship crown. In their fifth, the Blue Devils are one step closer to fighting their way to another.
Georgia Tech threatened a late comeback Thursday against Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Championship at Vartabedian Field in Pittsburgh, but the Blue Devil offense responded handily to take the 9-6 victory despite some pitching hiccups in the later frames.
Jala Wright made her postseason debut as the Duke starting pitcher and kept the Yellow Jacket offense in check with her wicked change-ups, logging five innings of two-run ball. The Blue Devil bats kept making solid contact, tabbing an accomplished Georgia Tech pitching staff for twelve hits, four of which were home runs.
“Postseason, those games are tight and it's the back and forth. The tough teams just have to sort of weather that back and forth and maintain momentum,” said head coach Marissa Young on the team’s perseverance. “We swing the bat well. It was just a matter of time before we were able to break things open. Georgia Tech tried to answer back and we just had to figure out how to get out there and shut down their momentum.”
Three home runs in the sixth inning put the game in the Blue Devils’ pocket. While that may seem like a familiar course for this power-laden lineup, some unusual suspects got in on the long ball action.
After right fielder Caroline Jacobsen knocked a sharp hit down the third baseline, catcher Francesca Frelick and pinch hitter Deja Davis went back-to-back on 0-2 counts for their third and second home runs of the season, respectively.
Their out-of-the-park shots were joined by an 0-1 bomb from the most usual of suspects in shortstop Jameson Kavel—the team's leader in home runs—to give Duke a 9-3 lead going into the seventh.
“We talk a lot about continuing to hunt pitches in the zone and some of our kids are really good with two strikes and being two-strike hitters,” said Young on how the team approaches hitting when behind in the count. “So not really changing their swing or trying to do too much in those situations.”
Duke bats also barreled the ball against Georgia Tech starting pitcher Chandler Dennis, whose rise balls were entering the zone high and fast, but the home plate umpire’s strike zone seemed to be decidedly lower. As she pulled her pitches back down, Duke took advantage.
In the first inning, two solid drives off the bats of Kavel and designated player Gisele Tapia were flagged down by Georgia Tech fielders, but the Blue Devils broke through with a tape-measure single from first baseman Rachel Crabtree.
Up to the plate stepped second baseman Kristina Foreman, donning a plastic facemask over her nose and forehead to protect her from injury. The All-ACC Second Team selection would not let the mask get the best of her, as she silenced the Georgia Tech fans when she connected on an 0-1 pitch and sent it over the left-field fence for Duke’s first runs of the game.
On the game, Dennis allowed nine fly balls or line drives, and Wright allowed just one, a fly tracked down by left fielder Kyla Morris. While streaks of powerful hits were not a problem for Wright, she and the Duke gloves did face some adversity in the fifth.
To open the fifth, Georgia Tech left fielder Auburn Dupree snuck a hit right out of range of Duke third baseman Ana Gold, as it deflected off of her glove and out of range of the other infielders.
A walk, two wild pitches and a grounder later, both runners crossed home to cut Georgia Tech's deficit to 4-2. Wright did not lose faith in her change-up, whinging it into the strike zone to end the inning and her postseason debut with a strikeout and a two-run lead still intact.
“She was really strong and solid for us. That's what we wanted, to get her out there and get that postseason experience because we're going to need her down a stretch,” said Young of Wright's performance. “Jala's continuing to get better as the season goes, and that's what we need from her to be successful in the postseason.”
Duke pitchers Claire Davidson and Peyton St. George took the helm for the sixth and seventh innings and faced some issues with the long ball not present in the earlier innings. Davidson gave up a home run in the sixth to her second batter faced and St. George allowed two in the seventh to bolster the Yellow Jackets' comeback hopes.
The Blue Devil offense had made the gap so wide that the lead was never in severe jeopardy, but it will be crucial for these members of the pitching staff to bounce back as the ACC tournament continues.
No. 2-seed Duke next faces off with No. 3-seed Florida State in a rematch of last year’s semifinals at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
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