DURHAM, N.C. – Following three weeks of preseason preparation, the Duke volleyball team is ready to take the court for its season opener as the Blue Devils travel to Gainesville, Fla., for the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational.
Duke opens the 2013 campaign with a pair of matches Friday, Aug. 30 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center – first against LIU Brooklyn at 10 a.m., followed by New Orleans at 5:30 p.m. – before taking on No. 9 Florida Saturday, Aug. 31 at 4 p.m.
“We’re incredibly excited to see someone across the net other than ourselves,” said head coach Jolene Nagel. “Our team is really ready for that. We have made a ton of progress since January, not only in skill development and strength training but also in our relationships with one another. We’re still relatively young, but our senior leadership is going to be tremendous and there’s just a different vibe out there this year.”
Friday morning’s match versus LIU Brooklyn marks the first meeting between the two schools. The Blackbirds, hailing from the Northeast Conference, return 10 letterwinners from last season’s conference championship squad, including NEC Player of the Year Annika Foit, NEC Libero of the Year Vinas Joy and NEC Setter of the Year Vera Djruic. At 25-8 (16-0 NEC), LIU Brooklyn earned its seventh bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, ultimately falling to UCLA in the opening round.
“LIU Brooklyn is a good team,” Nagel said. “They won their conference last year and I expect it to be a really challenging first match. It should be a great opportunity to learn a lot about ourselves.”
Friday evening’s match also features a new opponent in New Orleans, which enters its first season as a member of the Southland Conference. UNO returns six players from last season’s 8-15 squad, while the Privateers added eight newcomers to the 2013 roster.
“I look for the New Orleans match to be another growing experience for us,” Nagel added. “It’s something new because we’re not familiar with their brand of volleyball.”
Picked to win the 2013 Southeastern Conference title, Florida enters the weekend ranked ninth nationally in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Preseason Coaches Poll. The Gators are coming off their 20th SEC title and 22nd NCAA Tournament appearance, falling in the Sweet 16 to eventual NCAA Champion Texas. Florida returns five starters from a year ago, including SEC Player of the Year and AVCA First Team All-America Chloe Mann along with AVCA National Freshman of the Year Ziva Recek.
The match between Duke and Florida also follows the Gators’ home football opener, which is set for a 12:21 p.m., kickoff at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, located across the street from the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
“We play right after football and I think it’s going to create a great environment Saturday,” Nagel said. “Getting to play Florida, it’s only going to help up prepare for the ACC season. It’s going to be a fun weekend.”
In search of the 18th NCAA Tournament bid in program history, the Blue Devils return 11 letterwinners from last season’s 15-17 (6-14 ACC) team. One of the key pieces to this year’s team is senior libero Ali McCurdy. The Tampa, Fla., native earned her second consecutive ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 after ending the season with 672 digs, breaking the school record for the second straight season. One of Duke’s most consistent players in 2012, fellow senior Chelsea Cook, a 6-2 middle blocker from Overland Park, Kan., also returns for her final campaign. Cook led the Blue Devils with 140 blocks last season and ranked sixth in the ACC, averaging 1.09 blocks per set.
Duke hits the road again next weekend, venturing north to Minneapolis, Minn., for the Diet Coke Classic Sept. 6-7. The Blue Devils square off against Western Illinois, Ball State and Minnesota over the second weekend of competition.