The spirit was palpable.
As Duke played at home this weekend, Cameron Indoor Stadium was filled with cheer, and not just because of the back-to-back victories.
Against Wake Forest Friday, graduate outside hitter Gracie Johnson became the 13th player in program history to reach 1000 digs and kills, leading the Blue Devils to a 3-1 takedown. Two days later, Duke beat Virginia Tech 3-1, capturing its fifth win in a row.
Although after the games head coach Jolene Nagel said, "there's no easy matches along the way," the Blue Devils made the opposite seem true, play after play.
Whether the ball was high above the net or deep into back court Friday night, Johnson was there, tallying 20 kills, 14 digs, four aces and two blocks, with only four errors on the night. And even though the achievement is her own, Johnson doesn’t see it as such.
“I think it's a testament to the amount of amazing athletes I’ve played with over the past years,” Johnson said.
The team’s chemistry was on full display throughout the weekend. On Friday, despite letting up the first set against the Demon Deacons, the Blue Devils (17-8, 8-6 in the ACC) were a unit. While Johnson totaled 20 kills, sophomore Kerry Keefe was right behind her at 19 to hit .410. However, none of it could’ve happened without graduate setter Emma Worthington, who proved her role as the heart of the machine with 46 assists.
After the first set loss, the Blue Devils fought back during the second frame, Keefe and Johnson trading kill after kill. In the middle, graduate student Jess Robinson hammered on seven kills of her own, adding three blocks to fortify the net and win the set 25-18.
With the game tied 1-1, both teams wanted it: bad. Set three was rally upon rally, with four ties in a row until Duke turned on the jets about halfway through. With the Blue Devils inching toward set point, the Demon Deacons (17-8, 8-6) made an admirable comeback, coming up from a 24-17 deficit to 24-22, all but delaying the inevitable; it only took one more point. With two sets in the bag, Duke made quick work of the match, limiting Wake Forest to just 13 points and a negative hitting percentage (-.071) as it played on to triumph.
Come Sunday afternoon, the Blue Devils brought their A-game, sweeping Virginia Tech (12-13, 2-12) with their usual relentless attack, but also with a heightened focus on serve-receiving and blocking. While graduate libero Madison Bryant led the defense with 13 digs, Robinson sprung up for seven blocks, right on theme.
“We wanted to take pride in our block and our defense and I think they took that to heart,” said Nagel.
As usual, Keefe and Johnson worked both ends of the net with 14 and 12 kills, respectively, leading the Duke on a waltz through the first two sets. Even though the Hokies had some momentum at the start, set one was a short one, courtesy of an ace by sophomore Christina Barrow to end the play 25-12. Twenty-four more Blue Devil points later, Johnson followed suit, leveling out the Hokies at just 13 points with a trademark fastball.
With one set to go, the Blue Devils blazed on, taking advantage of their own hitting prowess and the weaknesses rife in Virginia Tech’s defensive line. While the Hokies did mount their best offensive push in set three, junior Rylie Kadel clinched the three-set victory with the final kill.
For Nagel, the game was extra sweet, marking the 700th win of her career.
“It’s a little bit hard to believe,” she said.
After starting out as a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1983, Nagel went on to collect 203 wins as a head coach at Cornell and Georgetown. Twenty-four years later, she has 497 more wins with the Blue Devils to total 700, one of only nine active Division I coaches to do it.
On Friday evening, the Blue Devils next travel to No. 3 Louisville to seek redemption after their 3-0 loss in October. The game will be a hard-fought one for Duke, with Louisville sitting at 21-3, but after winning six of its last seven matches, Duke is fired up and looking forward.
According to Nagel, as long as the team “[knows] that we have each other...then, we can make it a match.”
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