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After Promising 2020, Duke Picks Up Right Where It Left Off

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(Photo by Hilary Scheinuk)

In 2020, during just its third season in program history, Duke was riding high.

The Blue Devils were 23-4, had won nine straight and were a couple weeks removed from the program’s biggest win—a 1-0 shutout at No. 4 Texas. Up next was a huge home series against Florida State, which would go a long way toward determining whether Duke could seriously contend in the ACC. But of course, COVID-19 cost the Blue Devils the chance to find out how good they truly could have been.

“After beating Texas at their place, the kids really started believing how good they were,” head coach Marissa Young said. “This group believes wholeheartedly that they are and will be a postseason team moving forward.”

Young was hired as Duke’s first softball coach in 2015, well before the Blue Devils’ inaugural season in 2018. After a couple seasons hovering around .500, Duke was putting everything together in 2020 before the pandemic brought it all to a halt. But with the entire team back for 2021, the Blue Devils are confident that all COVID-19 did was delay their first NCAA Tournament appearance by one year.

Brianna Butler and Peyton St. George form a formidable one-two punch in the circle. Butler, a hard thrower, was nearly unhittable in the shortened 2020 season, pitching to an ERA of 0.95. And after striking out 59 batters in 120 innings in 2019, she compiled 58 strikeouts in less than half that many innings last year.

St. George, who like Butler is a senior, is Duke’s big-game pitcher. She outdueled Miranda Elish in last season’s big win over Texas, and she helped lead the Blue Devils to perhaps the biggest upset of the opening weekend this year—an 8-4 victory over No. 4 LSU in Baton Rouge on Friday night.

“We have a stacked staff,” Butler said. “Everybody has something they bring to the table that’s different. I know some schools will ride one pitcher the entire season. We don’t have to do that at all.”

That pitching staff is supported by an offense that scored double-digit runs nine times in 27 games in 2020 and won 10 games via the run rule. Duke has already put up 30 runs this year en route to a 4-0 start.

Deja Davis sets the tone for the Blue Devils from the leadoff spot. She hit .347 in her only full season in 2019 and .412 in 19 games last season, and she’s off to a 5-for-12 start this year, including a grand slam to blow the game open against McNeese State on Saturday.

But Duke’s lineup is strong from top to bottom, with Jameson Kavel, Rachel Crabtree and Caroline Jacobsen all putting up big numbers. Kavel in particular took a huge step forward in 2020, raising her average from .288 to .377 and surpassing her 2019 RBI total in fewer than half the games.

“Continuing with our aggressive mindset has been really helpful,” Kavel said. “When we go up there, you’re going to get our three best swings. That is a really good mindset to have. It’s been crazy to see just how much better we’ve gotten.”

While the Blue Devils are grateful to be back on the field and excited about their prospects for the season, they’ve also been mindful of the broader societal issues brought to the forefront of the national conversation in the past year. Young is one of just two Black head coaches in the Power Five, along with Tyra Perry of Illinois.

Since the program’s inception, Duke has held a book club on Monday nights, and this year the team read a book on the women behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Young said the book club has provided a good opportunity for the Blue Devils’ five Black players to share their challenges.

“It’s been a great time to have conversations that probably wouldn’t have been had,” Young said. “It’s now socially acceptable to have uncomfortable conversations, difficult conversations about race and equality. Even if we can’t change the world, we can at least change the environment around us.”

With those conversations on their minds, Duke has turned its attention back to softball. The Blue Devils were picked to finish fourth in the ACC by the conference coaches, behind Florida State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. That should be more than enough for them to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time and build on what they had going a year ago.

“Everybody’s gotten bigger, faster, stronger and more mature,” Young said. “Obviously every team across the country lost their season, but for this group to lose the best season they’ve ever had, that takes it to a different level. They want to go out and show people that wasn’t just a one-year fluke.”

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