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Duke volleyball 2023 season preview

Gracie Johnson returns as one of Duke's standout players in 2023.
Gracie Johnson returns as one of Duke's standout players in 2023.


The Blue Devils will have plenty to work with this season as they have an influx of talented returning and incoming players. From graduate students returning from injury to four incoming freshmen, the growing team has the Blue Devils “continuing to focus on team culture, which is in a good spot” and “working hard to get ready to get started,” according to head coach Jolene Nagel.  

The talent was on display Saturday as the Blue Devils defeated Davidson in three sets in an exhibition matchup, providing a first glimpse of what might be to come from the group. Despite defeating the Wildcats in straight sets, the teams opted to play the remaining two sets, with Duke out-killing Davidson 42 to 30. The focus on team culture and offensive rhythm in the offseason paid off, Nagel said, as “the upperclassmen really did a good job of leading and keeping things steady out there,” and “they were good anchors for us bringing the composure.” 

For the Blue Devils to build on their preseason win, they will have to translate the positive signs from the win against the Wildcats to keep pace within a loaded ACC, which has sent teams to the Final Four in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. 

“We want to be competing at the highest level, and we’ll get our opportunity to do just that,” Nagel said. 

Despite the changes in the active roster from last season, the Blue Devils seem to have the seniority and guidance to prosper in their competitive conference this season. As the roster grew, so did the leadership, with the Blue Devils not only keeping graduate students Gracie Johnson and Lizzie Fleming as captains but bestowing the honor on graduate student Madison Bryant and senior Sydney Yap as well.

In practice and exhibition, Nagel believes that her group certainly has the tools to “be able to, day in and day out, work together to get better so that we can be the best we can be.” 

If those tools perform as expected, it might be an exciting year for Blue Devil volleyball.

-Anna Newberry

New player to watch: Emma Worthington

After losing top setter Devon Chang last season, Duke can benefit from the presence of graduate student Emma Worthington who was the setter at Cornell. Worthington had 25 assists in Duke’s preseason win against Davidson and provides a promising alternative to one of the program’s biggest losses. It will be worth seeing how Worthington builds chemistry with Duke’s top outside hitter Gracie Johnson this year, which may pay dividends if their connection is strong. -Suresh Kannoth

Returning players to watch: Madison Bryant & Gracie Johnson

Graduate student Bryant joined Duke last year after playing four years for Tennessee. The starting libero unfortunately saw little playing time last year due to an injury suffered at the early part of last year. Prior to that, Bryant had 80 digs, averaging four per set, with a season high of 24 against BYU. Bryant’s primary focus on the court has been on the defensive end, but she also showed glimpses of her offensive skills last year, as she recorded 28 assists and seven aces in the short amount of time she played last season.  Now that Bryant is back healthy, Duke will get to see her perform and display her skills for an extended period of time.

Johnson is returning to the Blue Devils as a graduate student after playing for Duke for her entire undergraduate career. Johnson finished the 2022 season First Team All-ACC, where she recorded 462 kills and showcased her defensive skills recording 217 digs and 43 blocks. As Duke’s top outside hitter, she will be key to the offensive strategy geared toward improving her team’s record this year. This season will present a new challenge for Johnson in her leadership position where she will look to inspire the new first-year outside hitters before they take on her helm. For the time being, though, she’s still the one to watch. -Kannoth

Most anticipated matchups: vs. North Carolina, Oct. 25

Without a doubt, the Tobacco Road rivalry guarantees a hyped matchup between Duke and North Carolina. They first face off Oct. 25 at home, a game that will certainly be circled for both the team and its supporters. Last season, the Blue Devils lost both games against the Tar Heels 3-1 and finished last season ranked 10th in the ACC, three spots behind North Carolina and below them for the fourth-straight year. With more experience and even better team chemistry this year, Duke can aim to flip the script and beat its longtime rivals. 

“We don't get to play everybody twice … it's an unbalanced schedule … you got to take them as they come and get them as you can, because it's not necessarily a balanced overall schedule with a conference tournament at the end of the season,” Nagel said.

- Kannoth

Best-case scenario 

With several returning players and fresh energy added to the team, Duke has potential to improve its record in the standings this year. The Blue Devils have the potential to finish in the top half of the ACC and snag at least a .500 record, in addition to some solid wins against nonconference competitors. -Kannoth

Worst-case scenario 

After finishing 16-13 overall and 7-11 in the ACC last season, the way Duke’s season ends will be because of its tough schedule. With Louisville and Pittsburgh making it to the Final Four in both 2021 and 2022, the Blue Devils will want to improve on their 7-11 conference record, but will find it difficult against the ACC’s top programs. 

If the team struggles to adjust to the changes and growth in the roster from last season and fails to capitalize on its matches against weaker conference teams, Duke has the ability to slip even further. -Newberry


Newberry: 19-10 (8-10 in ACC), ninth in ACC standings

Kannoth: 18-11 (8-10 in ACC), eighth in ACC standings


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