Mallory Cecil and Becca Ward and national runner-up Konrad Dudziak have been named the 2009 Blue Devils of the Year by Blue Devil Weekly newspaper.DURHAM, N.C. – NCAA champions
With 19 of the school’s 26 sports earning representation in NCAA postseason play and a sixth straight top 20 Directors’ Cup finish on tap, feel-good stories were plentiful across every sector of Duke Athletics.
But three of the most compelling stories revolved around the dominance of fencer Ward, the determination of wrestler Dudziak and the dynamic impact of tennis player Cecil. They rose above the competition during their seasons, then stood head-and-shoulders above a field of superb contenders for BDW’s annual Blue Devils of the Year distinction — marking the first time that members of the fencing, wrestling and women’s tennis programs have been recognized in the 10-year history of the award.
Ward’s incredible freshman campaign had its roots in her equally stellar prep career. The 2006 world champion was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 2 in the world in women’s saber at this time a year ago, after winning four World Cup and Grand Prix events overseas during the 2008 season. Named to the Olympic team, she picked up a pair of bronze medals in Beijing just before enrolling at Duke.
Ward kept a low profile during the fall semester while acclimating to college after being home-schooled as a prepster. But no one was in her league when fencing season began. She compiled a 55-2 record during the regular season, then went undefeated at regionals to secure a spot at the NCAA championship meet at Penn State.
Her dominance continued on the national stage as she posted a 22-1 record against all the other saber invitees during the round-robin portion of the tournament while amassing a plus-77 touch differential — well ahead of any other male or female fencer in any weapon. She then cruised through the direct elimination round, routing Caroline Vloka of Harvard 15-4 in the final. It was her second championship victory over Vloka in less than a year, as she had topped her close friend 15-12 in the U.S. national saber finals the previous spring. The two have squared off in high-level competitions since they were 10 years old.
Ward’s title was the second NCAA crown for a Duke fencer and lifted the Blue Devils to an 11th place team finish at NCAAs. Her presence was felt in other ways, too, as she was always ready and willing to help her teammates improve in drills and practices. “We all benefit from her skills and her vision of fencing,” Duke coach Alex Beguinet said.
The night before Ward won her title at Penn State, Dudziak took the mat for the NCAA heavyweight championship bout in St. Louis. Like Ward, Dudziak had begun his odyssey years before with a purposeful march toward developing his skills. On leave from Duke, he had spent the better part of two years training in Poland, the Ukraine, Dagestan and at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. His goal had been to make the 2008 Olympic Trials, which he did, though he came up short of earning a trip to Beijing.
Back in school this year, Dudziak took aim at the NCAA crown with an overpowering start to the season — a 25-2 record, No. 5 national ranking and three tourney titles by early January. An injury in the ACC opener kept him off the mat for the heart of the league season, but he returned in time to win the conference championship and secure an automatic bid to nationals despite less than two weeks of post-recovery practice time.
Once at nationals, Dudziak won two matches to reach the quarterfinals, where he knocked off Jared Rosholt of Oklahoma State in overtime. Rosholt had been ranked No. 1 in December when he handed Dudziak his first loss of the season.
Dudziak then faced the current No. 1, David Zabriskie of Iowa State, and won a 3-2 nail-biter. That sent him to the final against local favorite Mark Ellis of Missouri, who pulled out a 3-2 decision in triple overtime.
Dudziak, who has one year of wrestling eligibility remaining, closed with a 31-3 record and became the first Blue Devil ever to earn wrestling All-America honors.
“It was a nice moment at my semifinal match, when they announced I was Duke’s first All-America and the whole arena got up and applauded,” he said. “It felt good that maybe I was doing something that people cared about. Coming back to campus, everyone I know had been watching it (on ESPN) and it was like the whole campus was behind me, and that felt good.”
Cecil had only been on campus a couple of months at that point. The rookie tennis player had been considered the top recruit in the country and had picked Duke over other powers such as Stanford, Florida and Georgia. She graduated a semester early from Pendleton Academy in Florida and showed up at Duke as a January freshman.
Her impact was immediate, but seamless. She took over the number one spot in the lineup right away but ruffled no upperclassman feathers due to her engaging personality and total dedication to the team, her tennis and academics. “She’s our pride and joy,” senior captain Melissa Mang exclaimed on national TV during the NCAA finals.
Cecil knocked off the No. 1 player in the country twice during the regular season, earned ACC tourney MVP honors in helping Duke take the conference title and then played a pivotal role in the Blue Devils’ first NCAA team championship. After that was decided, she won the national singles crown to complete a grueling finish in which she played 10 tough matches in 11 days. She became just the seventh freshman to win a national singles title.
Cecil closed her year with a 32-4 record, exactly half the wins and all the losses coming against ranked opponents. She was ranked No. 1 in the final poll and was named the ITA national player of the year. Then last week she was named the 2009 Honda Sports Award winner for tennis. That makes her one of 10 candidates for the Honda-Broderick Cup, which goes annually to the collegiate woman athlete of the year. The winner will be announced June 22.
“It just adds to the tremendous season we’ve had,” Cecil said of her latest honor. “Even though I started as a freshman in January, all the girls on the team and my coaches made me feel at home right from the start, just like I’d been here forever. Duke is a wonderful environment both academically and athletically and I’m really looking forward to the next four years.”
BDW has been recognizing the Blue Devils of the Year since 2000. The 2009 awards appeared in the June 20 edition, the publication’s last as a newspaper after 18 years and 436 issues. It will be converted to a monthly magazine this summer.
NCAA saber champion
55-2 regular season record
Olympic bronze medalist
NCAA singles champion
NCAA team champion
Honda Award as national player of year
Redshirt Junior, Wrestling
NCAA heavyweight runner-up
ACC heavyweight champion