If anyone at Duke knows how to build a championship program, it’s Mike Krzyzewski. So it only seemed natural back in 2017, as the Blue Devils’ softball team was still in its formative stages, that the Hall of Fame basketball coach would stop by to offer some words of advice and encouragement to coach Marissa Young and her players.
“His message then was that the group was going to be the founding sisters of what Duke softball was going to be known for,” Young recalled. “They had to figure out what that identity was going to be and then create it.”
Four years later, the Blue Devils have followed the blueprint to the letter.
They’ve established a style built around strong pitching, timely hitting and a competitive culture in which teammates can still be the best of friends off the field while always pushing each other to become better on it.
The Blue Devils won the first game they ever played and, despite being picked to finish last in the ACC, won 29 games during its inaugural season. Saturday in Louisville, Duke took the next step in its development by beating Clemson 1-0 to win its first conference tournament championship.
It’s a title that earned the Blue Devils the No. 13 overall seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, where they will begin play on Friday against UNC Greensboro in an opening-round regional game in Athens, Georgia.
Campbell was the only other North Carolina team to earn a tournament bid and will take on top-seeded Oklahoma State in the Stillwater Regional.
“In my opinion, it’s right on schedule,” Young said of her team’s rapid rise to the top of the ACC and in the national polls. “I really believe we would have done it last year in Season 3 had the pandemic not hit and cut things short.
“I’m a competitor and I knew that we were building things the right way here and that we would achieve success, so it’s really great to see that happening for us.”
The Blue Devils were 23-4 and ranked for the first time in program history when the 2020 season was halted last March.
They carried the momentum over to this season by upsetting No. 5 LSU in its own tournament on Feb. 12 then reeled off 20 straight wins — including eight by shutout. The express was derailed briefly during a midyear lull that saw Duke drop nine of its next 10 games.
But it hasn’t lost since, winning 15 straight and finishing with a flourish by taking out sixth-ranked Louisville and No. 2 Florida State in the ACC Tournament before getting a combined three-hit shutout from co-aces Shelby Walters and Peyton St. George in the final against Clemson.
“It was so much fun,” said Walters, a junior right-hander who has compiled a 17-3 record with a 1.30 ERA while sharing the pitching duties with senior St. George (18-6, 2.02).
“(Monday) we were really just starting to come down from the Adrenalin and the power high. All of us were at practice and we were so tired. But oh my gosh, it’s been so fun to experience this time and have these memories with these girls we’ll carry forever and ever.”
And yet, as euphoric and transformational as the experience of bringing home the program’s first title was, the Blue Devils (42-10) still have a way to go when it comes to proving they belong among the nation’s elite.
Despite being the top seed in their pod, they’ll have to play their regional at the home of No. 2 seed Georgia. Western Kentucky is the fourth team in the field.
“If anything, it was a shock to us because we weren’t expecting that,” Walters said of the regional site. “But we’re just going to go out there and say it’s another game. We’re going to have fun, play Duke softball and just compete for one another.”
That’s the kind of philosophy that convinced talented players such as Walters, St. George and leading hitters Deja Davis (.405, 7 home runs, 28 RBIs), Jameson Kavel (.339, 4 home runs, 33 RBIs) and Kristina Foreman (10 doubles, 11 home runs, 40 RBIs) to get in on the ground floor of a startup program.
“Duke is a hard place to turn down academically,” junior second baseman Foreman said. “But not only did Coach (Young) want us to strive in the classroom, she also wanted us to win championships like we’re doing now. It was the fight I saw from her that she wanted us to be a really good program despite the challenges.”
Even Coach K is impressed with what the softball team has accomplished in such a short time, as he told his members in a pep talk following the ACC Tournament.
“He came in with notes about what he noticed about our team,” Young said. “He said it was evident to him what our team culture was and that it’s the strength of our program moving forward.
“He encouraged the players to be who they are through the rest of the postseason, that we don’t need to be anything different, they don’t need to turn it up a notch. We just need to go out and continue to be us.”