Duke reaches Women’s CWS

In 7th year of program's existence, Marissa Young becomes first African-American coach in WCWS

Duke head coach Marissa Young, center, speaks with Jala Wright, right, and Kelly Torres, left, during an NCAA Tournament game against Morgan State. (Ben McKeown/AP Photo)

OKLAHOMA CITY–There are rebuilding projects, and then there’s what Marissa Young has done as head coach of Duke softball.

Calling it a rebuild is more than a little misleading. When Young was hired in 2016, nothing had been built yet. Duke had no softball team, no players, no stadium and, for the first 925 days Young was on the job, no games on the schedule.

Young had to work to get a home field, as well as recruiting players with nothing to show them.

“We owe a lot to them for being committed to the process and coming to Duke,” Young said of her first team. “Really, it was about a promise. There was no field, no locker room, nothing here for them.

Two and a half years after taking over, Young’s Blue Devils took the field for the first time, in spring, 2018.

Six years later, Young took the Blue Devils to the Women’s College World Series. It was an historic trip for a number of reasons. Duke won a school record 52 games this season, making their first trip to the WCWS. In the process, Young became just the 18th person to play and coach in the Women’s College World Series, as well as becoming the first African-American coach to reach the event.

“It means a lot,” Young said before the start of the WCWS. “I didn’t have that as something to see growing up. Obviously, in taking the job here at Duke, I understood that I had an opportunity to do something that’s never been done. It’s taken players that believed in me and the vision that we had, the commitment to the program and our core values to get us to this point. I love looking at our team, all the diversity, everything we stand for. It’s really, really special. I hope that it continues to open up doors for others, both in the professional setting but also players that want to play at this level.”

This wasn’t just a feel-good story of a team breaking barriers, though. The Blue Devils were a dominant squad. Duke won the ACC regular season and tournament, while sweeping most of the league’s major awards.

Senior Claire Davidson won ACC Player of the Year, and fellow senior Jala Wright took conference Pitcher of the Year honors. Davidson hit .436 with an OPS of 1.403. She had 18 home runs and 67 RBIs. In conference play, she had a league-leading 1.821 OPS. Wright went 19-3 with a 1.50 ERA and 189 strikeouts in 154.1 innings. She was undefeated in league games and led the ACC in wins.

Junior Aminah Vega won ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and Young took home the Coach of the Year award. All four were the first Blue Devils in history to win their respective honors. The three players all made the All-ACC first team, joined by sophomore pitcher Cassidy Curd.

Duke’s stay at the World Series was a short one. The Blue Devils opened with Oklahoma, losing by a lopsided 9-1 score. Alabama then eliminated the Blue Devils with a 2-1 victory in Duke’s next game. Still, Young and the Blue Devils looked at what they’d been able to accomplish, not at the road left untraveled.

“I felt like the world got to see what Duke softball was about,” Young said. “We’re a play away from still being out on the field battling with Alabama. … I just continue to look at how bright the future is for Duke softball.”

Considering what Duke softball looked like not that long ago, Young’s optimism seems justified.

“I’m sure it won’t hit us until we get back home to Durham, step on the field and see the Women’s College World Series logo on the outside wall,” she said. “We’re really trying to enjoy. It’s been a lot of hard work and sacrifices over the last seven years to get us to this point. I’m thankful that I feel like it’s paid off in so many ways, not just getting to this point, but again, seeing the growth in the players on and off the field. It gives me a lot of joy.”

“I’m looking forward to the future,” she continued. “It’s been a tough road as a new program, but we’re here. Just look forward to continuing to build from this.”

“Seven years is a very young program,” catcher Kelly Torres said. “This is not the last you’re going to see of Duke softball.”