Basically, a good volleyball offense jumps high and hits hard. It makes for a fun highlight reel; he gets points; it sends fans into a frenzy and opponents into frustrated silence.
But a great offense isn’t afraid to be a bad offense. He swings as hard as he can after being blocked instead of turning away from the idea of being blocked again. He hits as hard from the back row as he does from the front row. He is relentless, even when the game is on the line.
This weekend in Durham, it was the greatness of Duke who prevailed against Michigan (25-21, 24-26, 25-22, 25-19) and Michigan State (25-17, 25-13, 17-25, 22-25, 15-10) in matches on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
“Courage is one of our pillars. I thought there were different places where we showed courage tonight; I think [sophomore outside hitter Rachel Richardson] did on that set point, taking that big swing out of the system,” Nagel said, referring to Duke’s last point against Michigan State (6-2) on Saturday night.
In the first of four sets against Michigan (7-1), Richardson threw a well-timed Wolverine block, the ball returning to Duke’s 10-foot line. Several Blue Devils rushed to save the ball, making it just high enough for transfer graduate Devon Chang to recover and find Richardson, waiting unfazed on the 10-foot line for another chance. The Michigan block recovered, again setting up on the air to cover a hard drive down the line, but Richardson instead powered the ball up the crosscourt, Wolverine’s unprepared defense sending the ball into the stands.
“I feel like we did better this weekend defensively than we did,” Nagel said after Saturday’s game. “I think it was really important for us tonight, that we get stopped and balanced and have good touches on the block. Our block hasn’t been used a ton, so it really came in handy.
Defense was the key to a brave Duke offense, noted senior middle tackle Lizzie Fleming. Fleming, a team captain, played a key role in the Blue Devils’ five-setter game against Michigan State, opening the fifth set with two kills and pacing the Duke block to make several saves.
“I have a lot of faith in my teammates to cover me, so I just decided to rip a few balls,” Fleming said of his mentality at the end of the match. “And my setter is so amazing and prepared me really well. I know I have my defenders behind me to cover me, so it gave me a lot of freedom to push in and just try to score.
“She makes big plays to keep us in the game, whether it’s a block at a key moment or having the courage to go out there and swing on a set that might just be a little low; she can also take care of the ball if it’s not perfect,” Nagel said of Fleming.
Even on less than perfect plays, Duke’s offense still wore down both opponents’ defenses. After a block recovery, Chang threw herself to collect the ball, with the ball heading backwards to the side of the Blue Devils field. Passing the ball was the remarkably safer option, but without hesitation senior Gracie Johnson curled up and tipped, putting the Wolverines into a frenzy which Duke capitalized on and won the point.
The back-row offense is a newer weapon for Duke (7-2), led mostly by Johnson and Richardson, who didn’t seem afraid to be as powerful 20 feet deep as they were at net.
“It’s something that we now use intentionally because they’ve become a lot more consistent attacking it. It’s exciting that it can be part of what we’re integrating, so maybe we have four hitters at some point, which is wonderful,” Nagel said.
Duke’s bench depth has long been an asset to its success, and it proved its worth again on Saturday night after Johnson was taken to the locker room in a first-set timeout against Michigan State. Freshman outside hitter Taylor Atkinson replaced Johnson at No. 1, replacing Sydney Tomlak at No. 1. Atkinson finished with 14 kills, tied with Richardson for most of the game for Duke. Freshman Nikki Underwood played the Blue Devils libero in both games, with transfer grad libero Madison Bryant still out after injury against Northeastern last weekend.
But despite a short appearance against the Spartans, Johnson still left his mark on Friday against Michigan with a career-high 28 kills, tied for third in the nation in four sets. Duke’s 61 kills and Chang’s 50 assists against the Wolverines were also season highs for the Blue Devils.
Duke enters its final weekend of non-conference play Thursday against Winthrop on a seven-game winning streak, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
“Everyone works so hard,” Fleming said, “and I’m really proud of how far we’ve come. We’ve really stepped up and we’re a hungry team this year.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and social chair for the 118th volume of The Chronicle. She was previously editor of Volume 117.