The new season is underway, and not quite how the Blue Devils imagined.
Duke battled No. 17 Washington into the late innings before falling 4-3 and then squared off against defending national champion and top-ranked Oklahoma, to which the 15th-ranked Blue Devils lost 4-0. The Mark Campbell Invitational in Irvine, Calif., pitted Duke against two of the nation’s top teams in a formidable season-opening Thursday slate.
“I'm really proud of the way they competed today. We've got to just continue to learn from games like this,” head coach Marissa Young said. “I feel like we just made some mistakes on defense at timely points in the game, and we’re gonna get better as we go.”
The mid-morning battle in sunny Southern California brought a somewhat new-look Blue Devil team to the field for the first time since it bowed out of last year’s NCAA super regionals in Los Angeles.
Unchanged from 2022’s successful squad was the presence of junior starting pitcher Jala Wright, who started off her day with five solid innings against the Huskies—she did well to keep the ball on the ground and struck out three. Freshman second baseman Aminah Vega’s double to center scored the Blue Devils’ first run of the season in the fourth before redshirt freshman and former No. 3-overall recruit Jada Baker knocked in one of her own in the fifth.
With a 2-1 lead entering the sixth, Wright ran into some trouble as the Washington lineup turned over for a third go-round. Second baseman Kinsey Fiedler launched a home run over the left-center wall to tie things up before Baylee Klingler drew a walk and Madison Huskey singled to put runners on the corners with none out.
“It was just one pitch that somebody hit out and then a couple base hits back to back so we decided to make a pitching change,” Young said. “[Wright] had a pretty good game.”
Freshman pitcher Cassidy Curd, who Young anticipates starting a game this weekend, stepped into the circle for the first time as a Blue Devil and allowed the third Huskie run to cross on a wild pitch. A two-out double off the bat of SilentRain Espinoza put added pressure on Duke’s chances of climbing back late. A seventh-inning rally turned the tables on Washington as a first-and-third with two out brought graduate student Deja Davis a chance to do some damage, but following her RBI knock, Vega flied out with a runner in scoring position to end the game.
The nightcap only delivered more sour for Young and her “Team Six,” as the Sooners shut down the Duke bats inning after inning. Blue Devil pitchers did an otherwise masterful job of keeping the game close—junior Claire Davidson got the starting nod before Wright stepped back into the circle with her side down 3-0. Davidson, a southpaw from Lakewood Ranch, Fla., delivered 4.2 innings while allowing six hits in her season debut.
When all was said and done, Sooner pitcher and consensus 2022 Freshman of the Year Jordy Bahl tossed a gem against Duke’s solid offense, allowing just four hits to go with eight punchouts, while also driving in the game’s deciding run with a double to right in the second inning. Three more runs would cross for Oklahoma as the Blue Devils failed to get more than four batters to the plate in a frame.
Duke failed to convert on any of its nine opportunities with runners on base, and not once did the Blue Devils get their leadoff batter aboard in their first-ever matchup against a No. 1-ranked team.
Also with the season-opening weekend come some adjustments and shuffling around as players fill their positions and new additions get their reps. Junior Francesca Frelick started both games in right field after spending time both behind the plate and as a pinch-hit bat earlier in her career, Arizona State transfer Kristiana Watson got a pinch-hit at bat and freshmen D’Auna Jennings and Kairi Rodriguez each saw action.
“They're adjusting well, just getting more games under their belt,” Young said of the several newcomers to her team. “Having this experience of playing in these big games is going to serve them well. But they're great competitors. They're learning from each experience.”
The Blue Devils will certainly enjoy getting experience under their belts as they embark on a tough schedule, with five more top-25 matchups in their next eight games.
Despite dropping a season-opener for the first time as head coach at Duke, Young remains optimistic as the Blue Devils continue their weekend with Friday bouts with San Jose State and Liberty before facing No. 20 Stanford at 6:30 p.m Saturday.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.