DURHAM, N.C. – A young team in 2012, the Duke volleyball squad returns several key contributors as the Blue Devils, in the hunt for the program’s 18th NCAA Tournament bid, look to return to the top of the ACC standings.
After securing her 500th career victory last season, head coach Jolene Nagel returns for her 15th season at the helm of the Blue Devil volleyball program. Nagel, a three-time ACC Coach of the Year selection, is encouraged by the team’s progress early in the preseason as the Blue Devils integrate four freshmen into the mix with 11 returning veterans.
One of the key pieces to this year’s team is senior co-captain Ali McCurdy. The Tampa, Fla., native earned her second consecutive ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 after she ended the season with 672 digs, breaking the school record for the second time in as many seasons.
“Obviously we’re excited to have Ali back,” said Nagel. “She’s so competitive and I continue to see her get better every year.”
Joining McCurdy on the backline are freshmen Sasha Karelov and Chloe DiPasquale along with sophomore Laura Williams. Karelov and DiPasquale have both been solid early in the season while Nagel expects Duke to benefit from the experience and maturity Williams gained during her first campaign with the Blue Devils.
“Sasha is such a good volleyball player,” added Nagel. “She just knows the game and she’s an ultra-competitive kid. I think she’s going to help us in that area a lot. Laura had some injuries last year, but she’s relaxed a little bit out there and been more consistent overall, showing maturity and thinking one step ahead. Chloe has also come in and done a solid job with serve receive and defense; we’re excited about that.”
Senior middle blocker Chelsea Cook, one of Duke’s most consistent presences on the court in 2012, will also don a captain’s mantle this season. Cook led the Blue Devils with 140 blocks a year ago and ranked sixth in the ACC, averaging 1.09 blocks per set.
“Chelsea is a very important piece for us in that middle blocking position,” said Nagel. “She just works and gets it done. She takes everything in stride and I think she’s going to be a great leader for us.”
Although the Blue Devils must replace All-American Christiana Gray, Nagel is confident in the abilities of rookies Jordan Tucker and Alyse Whitaker.
“Jordan and Alyse are going to help us this year because they’re both talented,” added Nagel. “It’s just a matter of getting them into the system, getting them repetitions and getting them comfortable. I think they’re both going to make an impact in the middle for us this year.”
The Blue Devils’ offense is bolstered by the return of All-ACC Freshman Team honorees Emily Sklar and Elizabeth Campbell in addition to junior Jeme Obeime, who led the squad with 320 kills as a sophomore.
“We had a lot of freshmen last year and it’s nice to see them as sophomores this year,” said Nagel. “For example, I see a different Emily right now. I think there’s a higher comfort level. She’s more communicative on the court and I see her playing with more confidence, which is wonderful. Elizabeth also had a great freshman year and really finished strong. She’s a very talented athlete with a high volleyball IQ, and we’re really excited to have her back. And Jeme, she’s been practicing very, very well. She’s playing with more maturity and I see her improved blocking and improved defense.”
Sophomore Breanna Atkinson and junior Brittney Balser will also add depth to the Blue Devils’ roster. The two have missed time early in preseason, but Nagel expects both will have the opportunity to contribute this season.
Finally, Duke used a trio of young setters last season in juniors Maggie Deichmeister and Kelsey Williams as well as sophomore Christina Vucich. With a year of experience under their belt, all three return in 2013.
“Our setters worked very hard in the offseason,” added Nagel. “And our team trip to Europe was also huge as we had the opportunity to play together and get better. I still think it’s going to be a battle between them, but our setters need to continue to get better. We have to continue to get repetitions, but we’ve definitely made some great strides in our setting.”
Duke opens the season on the road, traveling to Gainesville, Fla., for the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational. The Blue Devils take on LIU-Brooklyn in the season opener, Friday, Aug. 30 at 10 a.m.