Seniors lead the way as Duke volleyball sweeps Virginia

With just three weeks left in the regular season, the Blue Devils could not afford any slip-ups in two road games as they fight for an NCAA tournament bid.

Not only did Duke avoid a momentum-breaking loss—the Blue Devils did so without dropping a set in consecutive games for the first time this year.

By Juan Bermudez / The Chronicle

Freshman setter Cindy Marina and the Blue Devils have won six straight games.

Duke swept Virginia Tech Friday night 3-0 (25-16, 25-17, 25-15) at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va., before traveling to take on Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon at Fitzgerald Field House. Looking for its second RPI top-50 win of the year and second in as many weeks, the Blue Devils delivered perhaps their best performance of the year, knocking off the Panthers 3-0 (25-22, 28-26, 25-23) in a trio of tight sets.

The senior tandem of middle blocker Jordan Tucker and defensive specialist Sasha Karelov continued leading the way for Duke, as Tucker recorded double-digit kills in both games and Karelov had double-digit digs in both contests as the Blue Devil defense stymied two more ACC opponents.

“Our senior leadership in general just keeps bringing us along. You have Jordan with performances like that, you have Sasha who had 19 digs and you have Chloe [DiPasquale] who’s just being really solid back there having eight kills herself,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said Sunday. “Our seniors are doing a good job of performing individually but they are also motivating others to succeed, which is helping the team.”

The Blue Devils (20-6, 14-2 in the ACC) maintained their second-place position in the ACC by first earning their second win of the year against the Hokies. Duke’s defense shut down Virginia Tech for the second time this year, holding the Hokies (9-17, 4-11) to a .127 hitting percentage.

Unlike the first matchup between the teams, when the Blue Devils’ intensity slipped and Virginia Tech won a set, Duke was steady Friday, dominating all three sets en route to victory. Tucker paced the offense with 11 kills, and four other Blue Devils had at least five as Duke took full advantage of 10 Hokie service errors.

Errors were the story in Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh too. The Panthers (20-8, 11-5) entered the week with the No. 27 RPI in the nation—the Blue Devils stood 75th—but struggled to close out sets in large part because of at least seven attacking errors in each set and seven total service errors.

Pittsburgh had more kills, assists and digs, but Duke was more efficient with its .256 hitting percentage to get the win. Tucker and sophomore middle blocker Leah Meyer led the way for the Blue Devils, combining for 27 kills and 11 blocks. The duo helped Duke an early 18-12 deficit in the first set with a 13-4 run, teaming up for nine kills to give the Blue Devils a lead on the road.

“Pitt was running away with it and we weren’t playing like we were capable of; we weren’t blocking like we were capable, digging like we were capable, controlling the first touch like we were capable,” Nagel said. “So it was great to see them pull together and start to execute one point at a time so they could get back into that set. It was huge for this match.”

The Panthers were the ones playing behind in the second set, which was tight until the end. Duke built a 23-21 edge before a Pittsburgh 3-1 run, but eventually a key kill from freshman Samantha Amos and a block by Tucker and freshman Jamie Stivers gave the Blue Devils a 2-0 lead.

Duke’s resilience was tested in the back-and-forth frame, as the Blue Devils had used all of their substitutions and timeouts.

“Whoever was out there on the court—that team had to figure out a way to pull together and get it done,” Nagel said.

After coming up short in the first two sets, the Panther rally fell of the rails in the third set when Pittsburgh blew a 23-22 lead with three straight errors—two of them service errors—to lose the match. Duke played a clean match with 14 attack errors and only one service error, winning its sixth straight ACC contest in the process.

The Blue Devils will look for another top-30 RPI win when they host Florida State Friday before taking on Miami Sunday on Senior Night. Following its final regular-season home game, Duke will hit the road for a showdown at No. 8 North Carolina, which currently sits one game ahead of the Blue Devils in the league standings.

More strong play from Duke could keep its ACC title hopes alive, in addition to bolstering its blossoming NCAA tournament prospects.

“It has been fun to watch these girls play because each day they come into practice they’re focused, they’re working to make themselves better and as a result make our team better,” Nagel said. “They’ve been just putting their nose to the grindstone trying to make that happen and it’s been showing up on the court, which is really exciting.”

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