Three rounds in and the Blue Devils are still firing. They have been, in fact, since their current 11-match winning streak began April 1.
It’s no secret that Duke is having a successful season. Its 16-3 regular-season showing included five ranked victories. It won the ACC championship. None of that, however, compares to the task at hand: the national title. And from achieving that, the Blue Devils are just three matchups away.
After defeating Georgia 4-1 in the third round of the NCAA tournament, No. 4-seed Duke advanced to the Elite Eight and a Friday date in Champaign, Ill., with No. 6-seed N.C. State. The first time that these conference opponents faced off this season was a thrilling match. After losing the doubles point, the Blue Devils found themselves behind early. That 1-0 score would become 3-1 in favor of the Wolfpack after the first three singles matches. With Chloe Beck, Ellie Coleman and Margaryta Bilokin each forced to a third set, Duke needed all three to close. And close they did, in just that order, to give the Blue Devils the 4-3 victory.
Losing the doubles point, as Duke did in its first contest against N.C. State, is not a trend the Blue Devils have continued. They have won all three doubles points throughout the NCAA tournament, allowing for more breathing room and flexibility in the singles matches.
“We have trust and belief that we can win all three [doubles matches],” said head coach Jamie Ashworth. That trust and belief have paid off and have put the Blue Devils in the driver’s seat; they have only given up two points thus far in the tournament. Now, however, the competition is growing fiercer as they look toward N.C. State.
The ACC and its members are uniquely situated in the tournament this year. Four of the final eight teams are members of the conference that has been such a powerhouse all season long, making the Blue Devils prepared for this moment.
“Every weekend that you play, every match that you play, at the ACC tournament, whatever it is, you have to be playing at a high level,” said Ashworth. Most of the singles matches Friday will look different than they did in April, but the competition will remain fierce, and someone will need to step up. Luckily for the Blue Devils, they have an entire team of capable closers.
“We've had different people clinch different moments for us and different matches for us…. When they've been put in that moment to clinch a match, you know, we've done really well with that, regardless of who it is," said Ashworth.
In the first round, it was Coleman. Emma Jackson, the ACC championship hero, decided the second. Georgia Drummy sealed the deal against the Bulldogs to send Duke to the Elite Eight. No matter who is left standing on the final court, the Blue Devils know that they can win.
Though the lights might be getting brighter, Duke is staying focused on itself.
“They try not to look at it as pressure, but they try to look at it as opportunity,” said Ashworth. That mindset has allowed Duke to overcome whatever has stood in its way. After back-to-back ACC losses to Florida State and Miami in late March, the Blue Devils turned right around and topped then-No. 2 N.C. State to right the ship. When the opportunity to down the then-undefeated Tar Heels presented itself, senior Kelly Chen stayed calm and delivered the knockout punch with ease. If the Blue Devils can continue their high-level play while putting the pressure out of their minds, then N.C. State and the rest of the Elite Eight will be facing a force to be reckoned with.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.