In August 2015, a high school softball star walked onto Duke’s campus to see what her potential future home would look like. The wooded area at the corner of Broad and Markham was just like the Field of Dreams.
Empty. No bases, no dugouts, no lights to shine down on the field at night.
A newly hired coach with a vision and superlative buy-in from her first players comprised the pieces to build the newest varsity sport at Duke. Whether those pieces would fall into place, and how long that building process would take, was anyone’s guess.
Almost 10 years after the establishment of the program and just more than five since first pitch, the Blue Devils’ softball program is ranked in the top 10 and a threat to go deep in the postseason.
“They're not walking into stadiums surprising anyone anymore,” former star pitcher Peyton St. George said.
But that was not always the case.
‘I need you to trust me’
Leading the way for the program was North Carolina assistant Marissa Young. The former Big Ten Player of the Year with Michigan took the trip up U.S. 15-501 to take a one-of-a-kind opportunity to craft a program from nothing.
Developing a program was not new for Young, as she had coached Division II Concordia University to a 23-23 record just three years after they went 2-20. At an ACC school with a long-established standard for athletic success, the experience would be something way different.
At Duke, she had plenty of support, namely from athletic director Kevin White, who had already made his commitment to expanding women’s sports at Duke known.
“Walking in his office and seeing the women that he had in place in leadership, specifically minority women, in his office really spoke to me that he was committed to opening doors for women and minority women,” said Young, who is one of three Black head coaches at Duke.
While she had his full backing, she was tasked with designing just about everything about the program years before its first game. Uniforms, the stadium, you name it. But her biggest impact during the early years of the program was intangible. She recruited some of the nation’s top softball players to compete on her first team while the plot of land on Duke’s East Campus where the softball stadium currently sits was merely a grassy lawn.
That first player to sign on was St. George, Atlee High School’s ace. The Mechanicsville, Va., native said it was a near-immediate “yes,” to become the first to don a Blue Devil jersey. That visit with Young was just about all she needed.
“I wish I had a stadium to show you. I wish I had a locker room to show you. I have nothing to show you. But I need you to trust me to know that I want to build this program around you and we're gonna go some really far places,” St. George recalls Young telling her.
St. George’s pitching coach back home reminded her of the choice to either break records or set records. She knew the answer was the latter — and she would do just that.
“The ability to call myself Player One is an opportunity I wouldn't have been able to get anywhere else,” St. George said. “... I will forever go down as Player One in the history books. You can't rewrite that.”
A text chat between St. George and Young grew as new commits showed faith in Young to establish success. Duke’s first season was nothing short of a success, as it won 29 games and finished with a winning record in the ACC.
ACC All-Freshman Teamer St. George said that team, which Young deliberately titled “Team One” to establish a unique identity to that group, had a goal of winning 40 games. While they fell short of that mark, she and her teammates kept up hope. They were further driven by Duke’s wide-ranging athletics success and the dream that softball would soon be up there with the men’s basketball team.
“For us, it was like, ‘alright, let's play catch up. We gotta get there and we're wasting no time,’” St. George said.
When, not if
Now that the Blue Devils were winning games, the next step was to ensure the success could sustain itself and grow. That 2018 team handed off the reins to a new bunch, with some of the new faces including Caroline Jacobsen, Deja Davis, Kristina Foreman and Shelby Walters.
“The legacy of group one has really set the foundation of the program in motion,” Young said. “... They're just very excited to be part of that foundation, to say they were the first this or that within the program.”
Young acknowledges that many of these players signed on to be a part of something new while playing under her guidance. That she was so successful in college helped gain credibility and buy-in from the earliest members of the program.
While the program was still in its nascent stages, White and the coaching staff strived to create an open, inclusive culture that St. George believes is unique to Duke. White, while overseeing significant development in Duke athletics, would meet with the athletes one-on-one to develop trust between the athletes and the visionaries who helped make it all happen.
And in a milestone moment for the program, Team Three became the first to take down a top-25 team when it beat Texas on the road Feb. 22, 2020. At the center of that 1-0 win was St. George, who tossed a complete game shutout.
“We had to step on the field with these historic programs and act like veterans. So it's not that I didn't expect [success]. It wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when,” St. George said.
Just when the going got good, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the 23-4 Blue Devils from pursuing their first postseason. Weekly Zoom meetings featuring guest speakers continued to develop the team through mentorship opportunities despite physical separation. Young made sure that mental health remained a priority, credit in large part to Young’s other role — being a mother of four teenagers.
She reflected her parenting on the program, saying the times demanded the program tweak its approach. In spite of the Blue Devils’ successes on the field, Young knew that “we have to do things differently and give the kids that love and care that they need instead of just demanding performance out of them all the time.”
As a sophomore, St. George battled with mental health herself, at one point considering transferring or quitting the sport. The late Greg Dale, at the time director of sports psychology, was instrumental in helping her find her footing.
“He showed me that it's okay to not be okay,” she said.
The coaches made sure their doors were always open, allowing players to take mental health days if needed, and their only question was “is there anything you need?”
Following the cancellation of the 2020 season and later the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests, the program also engaged in discussions around race and equality.
“I thought for the first time in my career it was widely accepted to have conversations about race, gender and equality in a different way,” Young said.
White supported athletes who knelt during the national anthem, the team organized a book club to discuss “The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It” and their personal experiences. As one of the few Black head coaches in the sport, Young was thankful that doors to these conversations had been opened, saying that she cherishes the opportunity to be a role model to other minority women in a November 2020 interview with Softball America.
Through it all, the team became closer, and the players were offered a continuous opportunity to share their concerns. After students returned to campus that fall, the next chapter of Duke’s story was ready to be written.
Team Four took the field the next spring, and they “didn’t play like underdogs anymore,” per St. George. They didn’t look like underdogs, either, traveling in groups be it to practice or for ice cream and riding scooters around campus “like a cult.”
Their roaring 26-1 start was halted by Clemson, the only ACC program younger than the Blue Devils. The Tigers took the back half of a four-game set, sending Duke on a 1-9 stretch. A 14-game win streak brought Duke to the ACC championship game, pitting it against the same Tigers. St. George fittingly recorded the final six outs of the Blue Devils’ historic 1-0 win, and Duke hoisted a trophy on the way to its first postseason as the No. 13 team in the nation.
“[Young] helped me pull the inner badass out of myself,” St. George said. “... She helped me be a person that when I stepped on the field I was immediately feared by other teams.”
The win transformed not just the fate of that team, which ultimately lost in the regionals against Georgia.
“[The 2021 ACC title] started getting people to believe that Duke softball can be a successful program,” Young said.
It fittingly happened in the fourth season — Duke’s seniors were the freshmen in year one.
The culture Duke created, and those seniors, brought them there. And the image Young and the Blue Devils had painted illustrated that success would be sustainable. The recruits that were soon to join the program saw it, too.
“We've established a culture of wanting to live a life of excellence on and off the field,” Young said.
The 2022 Blue Devils fell short of the ACC title, but qualified for the NCAA tournament. In a winner-take-all game against Georgia, a chance for redemption from the previous year, they showed their true colors.
“Everybody knew that we were gonna go to a super regional,” St. George says. “it was just ‘how are we going to get this done, who's gonna step up today?’”
St. George got shelled. Sophomore Jala Wright picked her up to finish the night with three hitless innings. Their road ended in Los Angeles when Duke battled UCLA, but the Blue Devils are primed for another run this season.
Paying it forward
St. George graduated and her number will remain on the outfield wall of Duke Softball Stadium. She holds program records for innings, strikeouts and wins.
“My jersey would not be on that outfield wall under the words ‘All-American’ if it wasn't for Coach Young,” St. George said.
She became the first Blue Devil drafted to play professionally, and along her first professional stint, she teamed up with the newest addition to Duke’s coaching staff: Sydney Romero. Romero, 25, won two national championships with Oklahoma and competed in the Tokyo Olympics for Mexico. An international softball icon, she was set to continue to develop the rich environment in Durham. Having Romero on board and St. George playing professionally means that the program is establishing its own sisterhood, with a growing list of veterans looking to give back.
Still a Durham resident, St. George tosses batting practice and mentors the pitchers. At the same time, she wants to give them space to learn on their own, offering criticism and praise when she feels it is most beneficial.
For each season to follow, that growing alumni network will continue its support. Prior to the season’s first game, the recent graduating class sends the team letters with advice. St. George’s message to the current team encapsulates everything she learned at Duke.
“You have to treat each team so special because you're only going to be sitting in that room with those girls and having that team one year.
“Even if you're young in your career and you feel like you have a lifetime before you graduate, you still can't take the team you have right now for granted. … Softball is something you do, it's not who you are. Rely on the people around you because they will lift you up so much higher than you could ever lift yourself and you're all working together.”
Young, who continues to strive for the first national championship, says that “Duke softball is definitely my baby.”
In season six, a once-empty field is now a stadium to show prospects. Young has a locker room. An ACC championship banner. At one point, a blue and white sign embedded in the chain-link fence above the right-center field wall spelled out “Go Duke.”
She’s built this program around the players. In turn, the players, placing their trust in Young, have built the program, too.
“It wasn’t really a question of me. There was no recruiting pitch needed,” St George said. “... I was all on board … it started to slowly grow for Player Two, Player Three and so on until Team One was born.”
Everything, St. George said, fell into place how it was supposed to.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.