At its root, a good volleyball offense jumps high and hits hard. It makes for a fun highlight reel; it gets points; it sends the fans into a frenzy and the opponents into frustrated silence.
But a great offense is not afraid of being a bad offense. It swings as hard as it can after being blocked instead of shying away from the idea of being shut down again. It hits as hard from the back row as it does the front row. It is relentless, even when the game is on the line.
This weekend in Durham, it was Duke’s greatness that won against Michigan (25-21, 24-26, 25-22, 25-19) and Michigan State (25-17, 25-13, 17-25, 22-25, 15-10) in Friday and Saturday’s matches, respectively.
“Courage is one of our pillars. I did think there were different spots where we showed courage tonight; I think [sophomore outside hitter Rachel Richardson] did on that set point, taking that big swing out of system,” Nagel said, referencing Duke’s last point against Michigan State (6-2) Saturday evening.
In the first of four sets against Michigan (7-1), Richardson swung into a well-timed Wolverine block, the ball flinging back to Duke’s 10-foot line. Several Blue Devils scrambled to save the ball, getting it just high enough for graduate transfer Devon Chang to recover and find Richardson again, waiting unfazed on the 10-foot line for another chance. The Michigan block recovered, preparing again at the antenna to cover a hard drive down the line, but Richardson instead powered the ball cross-court, the unprepared Wolverine defense sending the ball into the stands.
“I feel like we did better this weekend on defense than we’ve been doing,” Nagel said after Saturday’s game. “I think it was really important for us tonight—us being stopped and balanced and getting some good touches on the block. Our block didn’t get used a ton, so that was really helpful to us.”
The defense was key to a courageous Duke offense, senior middle blocker Lizzie Fleming noted. Fleming, a team captain, was key in the Blue Devils’ five-set match against Michigan State, opening the fifth set with two strong kills and pacing the Duke block to make several stops.
“I have big faith in my teammates covering me, so I just decided to take some rips at some balls,” Fleming said of her mentality at the end of the match. “And my setter’s so amazing and set me up really nicely. I know I have my defenders behind me to cover me, so it gave me a lot of freedom to go for it and just try to score.”
“She does some big time plays to keep us in it, whether it’s a block at a key time, or having the courage to go in there and swing on a set that might be just a tad low; she can take care of the ball if it’s not perfect, too,” Nagel said of Fleming.
Even on less perfect plays, Duke’s offense still exhausted the defenses of both its opponents. After a block recovery, Chang threw herself to get the ball up, the ball heading toward the back of the Blue Devils’ side of the court. Passing the ball over was the remarkably safer option, but without hesitation, senior Gracie Johnson wound up and swung, putting the Wolverines into a frenzy on which Duke capitalized and won the point.
The back-row attack is a newer weapon for Duke (7-2), led primarily by Johnson and Richardson, both of whom appeared unafraid to be as powerful from 20 feet deep as they are at the net.
“It’s something we’re now intentionally using because they’ve become much more consistent at attacking it. It’s exciting that it can be part of what we incorporate, so maybe we have four hitters at some point, which is wonderful,” Nagel said.
The depth of Duke’s bench has long been an asset to its success, and it proved itself again Saturday evening after Johnson was taken to the locker room during a timeout in the first set against Michigan State. Freshman outside hitter Taylor Atkinson filled in for Johnson in the front row, switching out with Sydney Tomlak in the back row. Atkinson finished with 14 kills, tying with Richardson for the most of the match for Duke. Freshman Nikki Underwood played libero for the Blue Devils in both games, with graduate transfer libero Madison Bryant still out after an injury against Northeastern last weekend.
But despite only a short appearance against the Spartans, Johnson still left her mark Friday against Michigan with a career-high 28 kills, tied for third-highest in the nation in four-set games. Duke’s 61 kills and Chang’s 50 assists against the Wolverines were also season highs for the Blue Devils.
Duke will enter its last weekend of nonconference play Thursday against Winthrop on a seven-game win streak, and it does not appear to be taking its foot off the gas.
“Everyone’s working so hard,” Fleming said, “And I’m really proud of how far we’ve come. We’ve really stepped it up, and we’re a hungry team this year.”
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.