Duke softball wins ACC title four years after starting team

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Duke’s newest team is already a champion.

In the program’s fourth year of existence, the Blue Devils captured the ACC softball title with a 1-0 win over Clemson on Saturday in the ACC tournament championship game at Ulmer Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I knew from the start that Duke softball was going to be a championship team,” Duke coach Marissa Young said during a Zoom interview on Saturday. “I’m so thankful for all the kids that believed in my vision. We got everybody on the bus in the right seat and we believed.”

Ranked No. 21 nationally, Duke (42-10) heads into its first NCAA tournament riding a 15-game winning streak. The NCAA will announce the tournament bracket Sunday night.

“This group has believed since day one that this is what we were capable of,” Young said. “There probably weren’t too many other people in the country that believed it. But that’s what it’s about. You believe, you have the vision, you work really hard toward it and now we are seeing it all come to fruition.”

To win the ACC championship, Duke rallied two runs in the top of the seventh inning to beat No. 7-ranked Florida State 4-3 in Friday’s semifinals.

Against ACC regular season champion and No. 13-ranked Clemson (42-6) in the title game, Duke rode strong pitching from Shelby Walters and Peyton St. George to the shutout win.

Walters limited the Tigers to three hits over the first five innings, striking out three and issuing one walk. After Duke scratched across the game’s only run in the top of the sixth inning, St. George retired all six batters she faced to secure the save.

St. George, a senior who decided to play for Duke before the team’s home stadium was even constructed, never doubted she could be part of a champion during her time with the Blue Devils.

“My pitching coach back home said, `Do you want to go somewhere to break records or to set them?’” St. George said during a Zoom interview on Saturday. “That kind of hit me in the face. I really wanted to set records. Now that we’ve won an ACC championship and we just had our 42nd win, I think the sky’s the limit.”

St. George is a big reason why Duke’s program has come so far so fast. She’s 18-6 with a 2.02 earned run average this season, having collected her fourth save on Saturday. Walters (17-3) has a team-best 1.30 ERA.

Duke scored the only run it would need without getting the ball out of the infield in the sixth inning. Deja Davis reached on an infield single and Gisele Tapia walked. The runners advanced to second and third with no outs when Clemson pitcher Valerie Cagle uncorked a wild pitch.

Davis scored on Kamryn Jackson’s RBI groundout to shortstop.

“This team finds ways to win games so differently,” Young said, “whether it is run rules, or winning tight ballgames like you see today. Us being able to come back against Florida State and come from behind just shows how resilient this group is.”

Duke appeared on its way to a special season a year ago. The Blue Devils were 23-4 when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the rest of the season in March 2020. That start included St. George pitching a shutout to beat No. 4 Texas 1-0, the program’s first win against a ranked opponent.

“In season two (2019), we faced a lot of top 25 teams and were always like one play away or one hit away,” Young said. “We lost a lot of really tight games. That moment (beating Texas), being able to sustain a 1-0 win against Texas, we felt it in our bones during that game that we were where we needed to be. After that win, that sort of marked for our program and for everybody in the country to say ‘This is what Duke softball is capable of.’

The pandemic setback only deterred Duke for one year, though.

“It hurt, it hurt like hell to have our season cut short last season,” Young said. “This is what we worked for. We’re finally at a point where we want to be. Now we’ve had it taken away from us. To see where this team is now, how hard they worked through a pandemic and all the regulations that we’ve had that have changed everything we’ve ever done and how we’ve done it, for them to still be the dominant team that we are now, I couldn’t be more proud.”