After two and a half years, Duke softball is an overnight success

Blue Devils' first softball team posts six wins in their first nine games

Built from the ground up over the last 2½ years, Duke softball has won six of the program’s first nine games. (Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

Nine hundred twenty-five days.

When Marissa Young took the job as head coach, Duke softball had no players, no stadium and no games scheduled for 925 days.

Gerald Ford wasn’t president for 925 days. The U.S. didn’t spend 925 days in World War I. Young, who had played at Michigan, spent two years in the pros and eight years coaching college softball, most recently as an assistant at North Carolina, had a little more than 2½ years to build a program from scratch before her team would begin playing games that counted.

To put that in perspective, now that Duke has been playing softball games for a little over a week, it will be Aug. 21, 2020, before Young has spent as long coaching games as she did waiting for the Blue Devils to take the field for the first time.

Not that there wasn’t plenty to do over those 925 days.

“There was a lot to worry about, to get this program up and running in two years,” Young said.

One of the biggest tasks was finding players who were willing to sign with a program that, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist yet.

Young did exactly that, finding a handful of players in the class of 2016 who were willing to sign with Duke and wait a year for the program to begin play.

The 2016-17 Blue Devils didn’t have enough players to field a team and was made up entirely of redshirts.

“We did a lot of individual work,” said catcher Jazz Moreno, who, with seven walks and three sacrifice hits in nine games, is Duke’s career leader in both categories. “Sometimes, our assistant coaches would come out and play the field with us, so we could have a full team.”

“We owe a lot to them for being committed to the process and coming to Duke,” Young said. “Really, it was about a promise. There was no field, no locker room, nothing here for them. They came, stuck with the process and really laid the foundation.”

In the meantime, Young was helping to lay the foundation for the team’s home.

Construction began in 2016. The $9 million project included a 500-seat stadium, located on East Campus, next to the field hockey stadium, with state-of-the-art indoor batting cages.

With the still-unnamed stadium taking shape and her skeleton roster working out and waiting, Young added a second recruiting class last year, as well as a handful of transfers.

“This summer, it definitely felt different around here,” Moreno said. “It was like, ‘We have players now! We have a team!’”

Work on the stadium was completed, and its grand opening in September drew a sellout crowd for an exhibition game against NC State.

Four months later, on Feb. 8 at Florida Atlantic University, Duke’s Team One, as the program is calling the 2017-18 Blue Devils, took the field. The roster includes eight true freshmen, four redshirt freshmen, and transfers from UNC, Seattle University, Columbia, Ole Miss and James Madison. There are just two upperclassmen.

Duke won its first game, topping FAU, 4-3, and won two out of five games in the opening weekend. The Blue Devils then returned home to officially open their stadium in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

There were a few opening night jitters, as Duke committed three errors in three innings, falling behind Penn State, 5-0, in front of the home crowd. The Blue Devils mounted a rally, however, keyed by a two-run home run — the first in program history — by Katherine Huey. A true freshman, Huey had earned Duke’s first-ever win eight days earlier, and she recorded the team’s first home win as well.

In their second home game, true freshman Amelia Wiercioch came within two outs of throwing the first no-hitter in program history, shutting out Purdue, 4-0. Wiercioch also has the first hit and first RBI in Duke history.

Duke went on to beat Penn State and Purdue again over the weekend, sweeping all four games of the Challenge and completing a near-perfect debut.

“Some sunshine probably would have been the only thing I’d have added,” said Young. “We were tested. We had some things we had to battle out of. I couldn’t be prouder of them.

“It’s incredible, just to be at the forefront of a university and community getting behind a new sport, and then bringing along so many amazing kids for this journey,” she added. “Now, finally being able to get out onto the field and compete and win some games, it’s just icing on the cake.”

After 925 days, Young’s program is an overnight success.