Spring is the season of national championships at Duke. The school has 17 NCAA team titles and 11 of them have come from three spring sports. Women’s golf has seven, men’s lacrosse three and women’s tennis one.
All three of these programs are in the national-title mix this season.
Other spring sports have come close. The men’s golf team finished third as recently as 2018, the women’s lacrosse team was in the final four as recently as 2015 and the men’s tennis program has reached the NCAAs nine times in the last 12 seasons.
The national pastime has largely been absent from this title chase, at least in recent years.
It wasn’t always been that way. Jack Coombs had a 382-171 record at Duke. Duke made the 1952, 1953 and 1961 College World Series, the first appearance coached by Coombs, the last two by Ace Parker.
But after that 1961 appearance Duke went a jaw-dropping 54 seasons without a single NCAA appearance. Duke once went 31 consecutive seasons without a winning record in ACC play.
Duke decided to get serious about baseball, hired Chris Pollard away from Appalachian State and gave him the support he needed to compete in one of the nation’s best baseball conferences.
Pollard got Duke back to the NCAAs in 2016. The Blue Devils lost both games in the double-elimination format and missed the tournament in 2017.
But Duke knocked on the door of elite status in 2018 and 2019. The NCAA baseball tournament starts with 16 four-team regionals in a double-elimination format. The 16 winners play the following weekend in eight Super Regionals, with a best-of-three format. The eight winners go to Omaha and the College World Series.
Duke overcame a seven-run deficit to Campbell in a 2018 regional elimination game and followed by beating Troy and host Georgia twice, Duke’s first NCAA Tournament wins since 1961. Texas Tech defeated Duke in the first game of the Super Regional, Duke won the second game and the Red Raiders won the rubber match and advanced to Omaha.
Duke advanced to a 2019 Super Regional against perennial power Vanderbilt and mauled the Commodores in the first game, 18-5.
One game from Omaha.
But Vanderbilt got a once-in-a-lifetime performance from Kumar Rocker (19 strikeouts, no hits) in the second game and won the third.
Three times over those two seasons Duke was one win away from the College World Series. Three times they came up short.
Many experts thought 2020 was the year Duke would take that final step, especially after ace Bryce Jarvis emerged as one of the nation’s best starters, including a perfect game against Cornell. But the season ended prematurely and we will never know.
Is 2021 the year?
Early returns are mixed. There are some good-news, bad-news narratives. Major League baseball compressed its 2020 draft to five rounds, which left some undrafted talent coming back to college.
Included in that group were Duke catcher Mike Rothenberg and center fielder Joey Loperfido.
Rothenberg, a 2021 pre-season All-American, considered signing as a free agent but “at the end of the day, I just valued this team a little more” than going pro.
Loperfido made the same decision. But Jarvis was selected in the first round to Arizona and was gone. Bullpen ace Thomas Girard (Baltimore) and pitcher/first baseman Matt Mervis (Cubs) signed as free agents, further depleting Duke of experienced arms.
The NCAA also allowed seniors to come back for an extra year and several Blue Devils accepted the option. Third baseman Erickson Nichols, for example, enrolled in grad school and is batting .340.
Duke lists seven grad students, a redshirt senior, five true seniors and a red-shirt junior on its roster.
An incredibly experienced roster.
Now, the bad news.
Pollard says everyone else has an incredibly experienced roster.
“In a normal year, it would be a huge advantage. This year, there’s very little advantage, because everybody’s like that. Everybody that we’re playing is old. It’s only an advantage when you have it and somebody else doesn’t. It’s just a really unusual year in college baseball, when you’ve got a lot of older, experienced teams and I think it’s making for a very topsy-turvy year.”
Duke opened on the road, winning two of three at Coastal Carolina. That may not seem like much if you don’t follow college baseball. But Coastal is a national power. They won the College World Series in 2016.
But Duke hasn’t been able to build on that. It’s been one step forward, one step back. Duke hasn’t won more than three straight and hasn’t lost more than two straight. They sit at 8-8 overall, 4-5 ACC, with a Tuesday game against UNC-Greensboro.
What does Duke have to do to run off a long winning streak?
“We’ve been really solid defensively,” Pollard says. “ I think we’ve been really good offensively. I think a lot of that goes to our maturity. On the flip side, we’re pretty inexperienced on the mound and in a year when you’re facing a lot of older lineups, I think that’s exposed us a little bit at times. We knew we were probably going to be inconsistent early because of the inexperience. We need to get some consistency with our pitching. I think we will as we get into the season.”
Pollard adds another caveat.
“Because of Covid, you’ve got an older roster and you’ve got a bigger roster, which means you’ve got some older guys who are sitting and not playing and I think that’s hard on guys.”
Loperfido adds perspective.
“Having the past Super Regional experiences and last year obviously a good team that probably would have done the same, I think it’s easy to operate under the assumption that those things will manifest themselves but the reality is that it is such a competitive league and such a competitive schedule, that you have to go out and do it every day. So, I think the challenge for this year’s team is to stay locked in to that next game and take it one game at a time.”
Another good news/bad news. The ACC is brutal and there aren’t a lot of easy wins on the schedule. The good news is that wins will be quality wins, the kind that move the numbers in a positive direction.
Duke certainly has some weapons. Junior outfielder R.J. Schreck is off to a spectacular start, .429, five home runs, 19 runs batted in through 16 games. Junior shortstop Ethan Murray is off to a slow start but Pollard says he has All-America potential. Rothenberg, Loperfido, senior first baseman Chris Crabtree and Penn grad-student transfer outfielder Peter Matt all have big-time bats.
“The goal is the same as it is every year,” Pollard says. “Make the NCAA Tournament, with a chance to go to Omaha.”