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Led by Johnson, Duke volleyball cruises to victory against Wake Forest

<p>Senior outside hitter Gracie Johnson had another 20-kill outing Sunday.</p>

Senior outside hitter Gracie Johnson had another 20-kill outing Sunday.

An object in motion keeps its momentum until acted upon by an opposing force. 

Newton’s law was contended, however, in Duke's victory against Wake Forest Sunday afternoon: the Blue Devils took an early lead and, even with the opposing force of the Demon Deacons acting against them, carried their momentum to an easy three-set victory.

Tied for 11th place in the ACC, the in-state rivals faced off in Wake Forest’s Reynolds Gym in Winston-Salem, N.C., with each team hoping to break the tie in their favor. Unfortunately for the Demon Deacons, the Blue Devils knocked them out with a sweep (25-22, 25-19, 25-20) to make up for Duke’s Friday loss against Virginia Tech.

“The team played really well today. And certainly it was a really great rebound after the match on Friday night,” head coach Jolene Nagel said following the victory.

Unsurprisingly, senior Gracie Johnson led the Blue Devils (14-11, 5-9 in the ACC) to victory, scoring 20 kills over the three sets. Junior Georgia Stavrinides held down the fort defensively, recording six blocks to give Duke the safety net that kept it a few comfortable points ahead of its opponent for the entire match.

“Last week [Johnson] had her thousandth kill,” Nagel said. “But I think the impressive thing about tonight was that she had a 44.7 [hitting percentage], so she only had three hitting errors.”

The three sets against Wake Forest were all about channeling consistency—a tough feat for a team that has not found much consistency this season. But the Blue Devils’ defeat of the Demon Deacons proved that Duke is not backing down as the season nears conclusion.

“I thought it could easily be a five-setter,” said Nagel. “So I certainly am excited with how our team came out and really controlled the tempo. … I thought we were aggressive on our defense as well, which really helps the whole cause.”

Johnson and Stavrinides were not alone in setting the team up for its striking success against Wake Forest. California native Kerry Keefe, a 6-foot-3 freshman who has had an impactful rookie season at Duke, contributed as well with a renaissance performance that amounted to seven kills, two blocks and efforts that got the ball over the net in 41.2% of her attempts.

The first set opened with an immediate kill from Wake Forest’s Emmy Ogogor. But first impressions are often wrong—in just a few short minutes, Duke had struck its way to a two-point lead. The team never looked back.

“So much of volleyball has a lot to do with momentum … I think we've got to fight human nature sometimes. Just really fight to keep that momentum on our side,” Nagel said.

A steady two-to-three-point first-set lead meant that rather than wiping out the Demon Deacons (13-12, 5-9), the Blue Devils kept them in their place while defending the early advantage they had gained from Johnson’s kills and by proceeding with patience.

That patience is what Nagel credits with being the primary difference between the team’s win Sunday and loss against the Hokies Friday night. “When we did have an error we didn't let it snowball into two or three,” she said.

After wrapping up the first set with a three-point lead, Duke dove into its second, where deja vu seemed to reign strong. Wake Forest again scored the first point before the Blue Devils took over, ultimately following through and beating their opponent by six points in the second set.

Chang struck her first kill—a rare move for a setter—before Johnson hit her 15th to increase the Duke lead to five. But Wake Forest’s Peyton Suess (six kills) and her teammate Paige Crawford (12 kills) held on to the possibility of turning the match around.

Changing their tune a bit, the Blue Devils scored the first point in the third set before accelerating quickly to a 24-17 lead. During the third set, however, was the most tense moment of the match: Johnson and the Blue Devils could not land a kill on the Demon Deacons. Duke’s eight-point lead fell to five as the possibility of a fourth set became a real possibility.

Eventually, sophomore Rachel Richardson recorded her first kill—the last of the match. The Blue Devils made the short trip back to Durham after their quick trip to Reynolds Gym, bumping up their ACC record and garnering a rivalry win for the books.

“We're really excited about the bounce-back that we had after Friday night and hope to continue our momentum going into our next match on Friday,” Nagel said, adding that she hopes to see a solid student section for this week’s match against the Eagles.

The Blue Devils will face off against Boston College Friday in Cameron Indoor Stadium, aiming to remain in motion. 

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