Given the vast shadow often cast by the athletic programs at Duke University, you’d be excused for thinking the Blue Devils already have a mantle stacked with softball accomplishments.
Wildly enough, Duke is just now entering its second season as a full-on NCAA participant in softball, going 29-27 in 2018 and holding up with impressive rigor with a roster packed by freshmen and a handful of sophomores. The team’s 13-11 finish in ACC play was better than five other programs, so it’s hard to argue with that debut performance.
Head coach Marissa Young is understandably fired up for 2019; breaking new ground can be rewarding but tiring, and now the Blue Devils can dig in even harder on what it takes to excel on the diamond. They’ll learn a lot at Session 1 of the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, which starts Feb. 7.
“Our foundation is our culture; we’ve been figuring out what the Duke way looked like and how we could incorporate the wonderful tradition of success here. From a recruiting standpoint, it’s been great to have such a great name like Duke behind us,” said Young, an assistant at North Carolina who was hired in June 2016 (the program was initiated in December 2013). “We’ve been hard at work getting good kids in here that fit the mold academically and who can compete in the ACC. They’ve put in the work to get the program up and going, and have success despite being so young.
“Everything was new to everybody, staff included, all the support side … trying to figure things out along the way. We were making Duke softball what we wanted it to be, day to day, so that kept us united.”
While offense is of course important in softball, bringing in and developing top-line pitchers is a preoccupation for every team, and Duke hit on most of its early bets. Amelia Wiercioch won 11 games with a 1.95 ERA, and Peyton St. George chipped in with eight wins and a 1.79 ERA. They are both sophomores now, and the incoming recruiting class includes three pitchers who had notable success at the club and high school level.
Wiercioch is an obvious anchor point (she also hit .287 and drove in 28 runs last year) as Young assembles her staff and approach.
“We recruited a diverse pitching staff, which contributed to our success. A lot of them, it was the opportunity to come in and set records versus chasing other records, that was very appealing … come be a part of Team 1 and leave a mark early in their career,” said Young, who was a three-time All-American pitcher at Michigan. “I’m hoping to have two starters emerge; last year, it was better to go with a staff.”
Leading the way offensively is junior Raine Wilson, who hit .371 last year with 23 extra-base hits and 35 RBI, while also posting a terrific OBP of .453. One year removed from her transfer from James Madison, she’s a preseason all-ACC selection this season. An important newcomer is freshman Deja Davis, who will be asked to solve the defensive problems at second base that hamstrung Duke throughout last year.
“Raine went through a transformation, being a role player in another program to becoming a mainstay here,” Young said. “Navigating what this staff was like, how she’d be coached, and then realizing she could be very confident in her play … getting her to play relaxed and confident was the transformation. She’s one of the most passionate kids I’ve coached, and the team rallies behind that.
“We struggled defensively, especially at second base, but now we have a team that’s been together and they know what to expect. There wasn’t anything we could have planned for, we just had to experience it."
NOTE: Duke will play Notre Dame on Feb. 7, South Carolina on Feb. 8, then tackle a doubleheader on Feb. 9 against Liberty and Washington.