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Bob Sutton | Gaston Gazette | May 5, 2018

College softball: A new program becomes a hit at Duke

DURHAM -- A couple of dozen spectators had taken spots in the seating area inside Duke's new softball stadium by the start of a midweek game last month.

Several others used the grassy slope beyond the outfield fence to set up lawn chairs or spread out on blankets.

This was a scene that took years in the making.

For Duke, fielding a softball team for the first time has been rewarding in many ways.

"All season it has been balancing everybody else's expectations with our own," coach Marissa Young said. "The expectations (our players) put on themselves, they wanted to keep winning."

It's all new for the Blue Devils, who've entered the competitive Atlantic Coast Conference and have become instant factors.

"It just seems completely normal to me because I don't have anything to compare it to," said pitcher Amelia Wiercioch said.

Duke announced in December 2013 that it would field a softball team for the first time this spring. Young, who had been a North Carolina assistant coach after a playing career for Michigan, was hired in July 2015 by Duke.

Then came constructing a program, a facility and a roster.

Associate athletics director Todd Mesibov, who oversees softball, said there was patience. Seeing the process from the ground up became intriguing for the athletics department, he said.

It largely has been a success story since the program's first game, a 4-3 victory at Florida Atlantic in the opener of a Feb. 8 doubleheader.

"We knew we weren't just here to be here," second baseman Kortney Dry said of playing the first season.

After defeating Virginia last weekend in front of a home crowd listed at more than 500, Duke is 29-23 going into today's makeup doubleheader at Longwood and then the regular-season finale Sunday against visiting Campbell.

The Blue Devils will take their 13-11 league record to Atlanta for the ACC Tournament next week.

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Despite the planning of just about every detail, many aspects of the program seemed to bloom in a sudden manner.

"Just getting to play," Dry said. "I was here last year when there was only six girls here. We had that year. I got better with a lot of one-on-one attention."

On what's now a 17-player roster, 12 had never played in a college game until this season.

Duke picked from a small pool of potential players. Young said with some players committing in softball as early as eighth grade, there weren't many to left to choose from.

"It took a lot of courage on our kids' part and (a willingness) to buy in and be part of something, be pioneers," Young said.

Mesibov said Duke officials studied several new women's lacrosse teams (a few overseen by former Duke assistant coaches) that had been launched in recent years to uncover successes and pitfalls of new programs. Those included Florida, Michigan and Elon.

Duke's softball facility, which is located on East campus, cost approximately $8.8 million. It includes an indoor training area and an all-natural playing surface. The stadium seating area accommodates about 500.

Freshman dorms provide some of the backdrop. About a half-dozen trees came down to make way for the facility -- which is adjacent to the field hockey stadium -- when the formation of a team was barely in the infancy.

"Recruiting to a construction site, you can sell dreams," Mesibov said. "All of that was trusting Marissa and trusting the university."

Mesibov said he appreciates how the campus community has embraced softball. Inside the team area, there's a quote on one wall from Duke football coach David Cutcliffe, who offered inspirational words to the team before it embarked on its first season.

Wiercioch said being part of something new is one of the perks.

"It's amazing," she said. "I had a lot of faith in Coach Young's vision. ... We use our youth to our advantage. Everyone (has) the same rank."

Duke's five-game winning streak is the longest active string among ACC teams. Having gotten up to speed so quickly, now the Blue Devils are celebrating and agonizing with each result.

"If you look at our season, we've had a lot of one- and two-run games that haven't gone our way," Young said. "Our goal is to learn from them." ___

This article is written by Bob Sutton from Times-News, Burlington, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.