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The more you know: Examining Duke volleyball's dropped sets

Duke volleyball has won nine straight after starting 0-2.
Duke volleyball has won nine straight after starting 0-2.

Duke has won nine of its eleven matches so far this season. Six of the nine games it has won went to four sets. One went to five.

So what’s stopping the sweep?

We looked at the sets that Duke lost in its four-set victories to see if the statistics provide any clue as to where the Blue Devils are costing themselves opportunities to sweep opponents. Here are the numbers that stood out most from the box score, and what they reveal.

Attack and service errors

In all of Duke’s four-set wins, the Blue Devils had more attacking errors than their opponents in the set they lost. Their biggest differential was against East Tennessee State, when the Blue Devils racked up 10 errors compared to ETSU’s three.

But Duke struggles in dropped sets from behind the service line just as much as it does at the net. Of the six lost sets, the Blue Devils had more service errors than their opponents in five. Their biggest differential of the season has been five, with six service errors to Rider’s one.

It’s worth noting that in Duke’s five-set match against Michigan State, the Blue Devils had more attack errors in both sets they lost but did not lead in service errors. Both teams had one service error in the third set, and the Spartans had three in the fourth set while Duke only recorded one.

Blocking and ball-handling errors

These two unforced error types are less common in volleyball, and most teams won’t see more than two or three in a set, so doing any kind of data comparison for these numbers will not tell you exactly why Duke is losing games. But it’s interesting to note that the Blue Devils only had one blocking error in any of the sets they lost in their four-set matches—against Elon, and the Phoenix had two in that set—and they had none in their lost sets against Michigan State.

Duke also had no ball-handling errors in any of the sets it dropped in four-set matches or against Michigan State.

The danger of unforced errors

Unforced errors allow opponents to earn points by doing nothing. Teams can give away a large chunk of the game to the other team; take Duke’s second set against Elon, for example, in which its attack, blocking and service errors combined to give the Phoenix 13 points—with sets going to 25 points, Duke essentially gave away 50% of the set for free.

“I think we had too many unforced errors in that set,” head coach Jolene Nagel said of the set against Elon. “We had some hitting errors, I believe we had a blocking error … It just gave points away to them at that time, and we just can’t afford to do that.”

The issue of unforced errors isn’t unique to this season, with Nagel sharing a similar sentiment after Duke lost to Boston College in 2021 with 23 hitting errors and 13 service errors throughout the match. But although it takes winnable sets from the Blue Devils, some of these errors may actually highlight a strength of their offense.

Just keep swinging

Nagel remarked that the team showed courage in its offense after a nail-biter win against Michigan State, shouting out sophomore outside hitter Rachel Richardson for swinging aggressively on an out-of-system ball to earn Duke the last point of the match instead of playing it safe and passing or rolling it over.

This has been a more positive theme for Duke over the last few seasons; even in games in which they are seeing missed swings and serves, the Blue Devils still continue to keep their offense at full force, keeping their hitting attempts and hitting power on par with their opponents.

Of course, Duke doesn’t want attack errors, but it is not afraid of them, either. And even in error-prone four-set matches, that—as I wrote a few days ago—is what defines this team.

Leah Boyd

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.


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