Progress is usually non-linear, and a second-straight Duke season ending by getting swept out of the Super Regionals proves that. But in getting to host the series, the Blue Devils continued progressing a little further each season than the last.
A four-run fifth inning powered the ninth-seeded Cardinal past No. 8-seed Duke Saturday, in a game that started six hours early to avoid a massive stormfront forecasted to pound Durham from midday Saturday through Sunday evening. The Blue Devils once again took a first-inning lead, but Stanford responded with two runs as starter Cassidy Curd wasn’t able to match her early dominance from game one. The teams traded a pair of runs over the next couple innings before the wheels came off for Duke in the fifth.
“This program has taken steps forward every year,” said Blue Devil graduate student Deja Davis. “To get a top-eight seed is huge for us in our sixth year as a program. So absolutely, even though you don’t make it to the next round, this is a step forward for this program.”
As a fairly young team, with four freshmen among the starting 10 and its best player being a sophomore, it was crucial Duke started game two on the right foot. The Blue Devils had previously shown a tendency to press when behind and could let early mistakes bog them down. Falling behind quickly to a confident Stanford squad, one starting just two freshmen and six seniors or grad students, would be a recipe for disaster.
But where Curd started Friday retiring the first 12 Cardinal batters and generating six first-inning whiffs, Saturday she gave up four baserunners and a sac fly and got just one swinging strike before being pulled by head coach Marissa Young. Duke reliever Lillie Walker stranded two Stanford runners, but gave up another run as the rain started coming down in the second, and was charged for four fifth-inning Cardinal runs.
Duke led off Saturday’s game the same way it did Friday’s, with early offense leading to a quick opening score. Leadoff hitter D’Auna Jennings, a top-three finalist for National Freshman of the Year, took a pitch to the forearm that later forced her to leave the game and into an arm sling. After a pop-up by Davis, three of the next four Blue Devils knocked in singles. That plated one run, but the threat ended with an overambitious send of Gisele Tapia around third in which she was easily thrown out at the plate. Duke had just three baserunners from that point on.
Despite the inclement weather and early first pitch, over 1,200 fans turned out, putting the Blue Devils’ average postseason attendance at 1,185. Among those in the stands Saturday was Duke’s former All-American pitcher Peyton St. George:
“I think this is gonna help recruiting for the next however many years,” St. George said of the loss. “Like the legacy we built, it got [the current freshman] class recruited in here. And now that class is gonna get the next class recruited in, and we already have great classes lined up to come in. So I think the legacy goes far beyond their success on the field. But when Coach Young goes to travel tournaments this summer, it’s, ‘Oh, you guys were Duke, you were an eight-seed, I want to come play for you.’”
With Georgia and Clemson also being eliminated Saturday, nearly all the stars of Duke’s first Regionals teams are no longer collegiate players. Six of the top seven Blue Devils in career home runs are gone. So are three of the program’s four winningest pitchers. Their legacy is marked on the Duke Softball Stadium outfield wall, with three All-Americans, an ACC tournament championship and the NCAA berths that have resulted in back-to-back Super Regionals appearances.
What remains is most of the team that earned the right to host the first Durham Super Regional this season. Barring any transfers, Davis is the only regular starter departing the program. The entire pitching corps returns, with optimism that Jala Wright can return to her 2022 form. The best position player in program history, Ana Gold, is just a rising junior. The staff ace, Curd, is a rising sophomore who just had the second-best season from the circle in program history. Another pair of rising sophomore Blue Devils are Jennings, who hit .462 and stole 21 bases as an elite center fielder, and Aminah Vega, who belted 12 home runs with a 1.087 OPS while committing just one error in her last 20 games at the keystone.
“I’m excited to see this team next year,” said Davis. “They’re so young, they’re so good, and they’re just gonna get better. And Duke Softball is gonna be at the Women’s College World Series next year, I don’t have a doubt in my mind, and I’m gonna be there cheering them on.”
The guard has changed, but with the young stars making up the second generation of Duke Softball, the Blue Devils are going to be national contenders for the long haul.
“To come back and see them reach new heights means way more, it's way more fun,” said Raine Wilson, the program’s first-ever captain and All-ACC selection. “I hope we can go to a Women's College World Series as fans [of them].”
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