COLUMN: Duke Softball called it - Welcome to the College World Series ::

COLUMN: Duke Softball called it – Welcome to the College World Series ::

On April 10, Duke softball hosted Campbell just days after being ranked No. 1 in the country by Softball America. For the first time in program history, a Duke softball team was ranked No. 1.

Fans Tammy Spellman and Kathy Kennedy sat high above home plate, cheering loudly for Jala Wright and the defense.

They’ve been coming to games for a while now. Spellman became a season ticket holder after the 2020 season.

“I enjoy women’s sports in general, and they’re putting such a great product out on the field. They’ve just been fun to support and watch them grow as a team and really gel and come together,” Spellman said.

The players on the team have grown, but so has the program. Duke University and then Director of Athletics Dr. Kevin White announced the addition of softball to the list of varsity sports in December 2013. The first season didn’t take place until 2018. The 2024 season is just the seventh iteration of Blue Devils softball.

Seven seasons into the start of its program history, Duke softball picked up a No. 1 ranking for the first time.

What a climb.

So naturally, Duke lost the very next game on April 10 against Campbell, 3-2 in the final score. It’s at this time that Spellman said something very bold.

“Not if, but when they get to Oklahoma City, we’re all going,” Spellman confidently declared. “We don’t know how, but they’re just such an incredible program; they deserve that support.”

Oklahoma City is referencing the host site of the Women’s College World Series. The Elite Eight of Softball. The opportunity to play for a national championship. Just seven teams into existence.

For the next month and a half after that Campbell loss, the Blue Devils won an ACC regular season title and an ACC Championship, handled the Durham Regional and beat No. 7 national seed Missouri in three games on the road to lock up the first trip to the Women’s College World Series in program history.

It’s not some fluke, either. The Duke softball team has had lots of “first time in program history” moments for a while now. Its first NCAA Regional appearance came in 2021. It hosted a regional for the first time the year after, getting to its first Super Regional. In 2023, Duke hosted both a Regional and a Super Regional. Progress is not a straight line, but it sure feels that way right now for Duke. Of course, that’s not the case. That’s never the case.

The only coach in program history

“I have always been that person that wants to do what other people say can’t be done,” head coach Marissa Young said earlier in the season. “I knew that starting a program at Duke would be difficult.”

She saw the high level of play in the ACC and the rigorous academic standards potential players needed at the university. The former three-time All-America pitcher at Michigan wasn’t intimidated.

“We weren’t here just to start a program and be average. We wanted to be great,” Young said. “To now see that happen year after year, and our program keeps taking steps forward, really proud of that. But we’re not done. We want to be a World Series contending team, and that’s what we plan to do.”

Another prediction comes true.

Each team has its own identity and its mottos. This year, they call themselves “Free Swaggy Dogs” because of how hard they compete every day. They’re all unique, but it’s impossible to separate Young from that double helix.

“Coach Young,” ACC pitcher of the year Jala Wright said with a smile, “Man, that lady. She’s like a second mom to me. We’ve definitely had our ups and downs, but I love that woman like no other. She’s definitely taught me to be fearless, have a strong will, be strong in your faith and if you trust in God’s plan, everything will work out for itself.”

Young and this Duke team have needed that faith.

The challenge of this season for the head coach especially is difficult to put into words. Young admits she hasn’t been able to focus as much on the team and hasn’t been able to spend as much time as usual at Duke Softball Stadium.

“At Super Regionals last year, the last game of the season, my husband checked himself into the hospital, didn’t want me to know, didn’t want me to worry, but we later came to find out he had a heart attack two weeks prior,” Young said.

His condition deteriorated. Young said he was on life support for about 11 days until he was able to get a heart and kidney transplant.

“It’s still an ongoing daily struggle. Life looks very different for my family and our kids. We’re adjusting, but softball is our saving grace,” Young said.

James Lamar uses a wheelchair now. He was finally able to attend a game in person, the ACC Championship of all things.

Duke softball James Lamar

Young asked this team for a favor at the beginning of the academic year.

“They made a promise to me in August that they would play for me and keep things going, that they wouldn’t skip a beat,” Young said. “The coaching staff has done a phenomenal job leading this group, stepping up and growing and the players have too.”

So what’s next for Duke Softball?

Just keep winning, right? They have the talent, that’s for sure. Just look down the list of accolades for the conference: the previously mentioned Jala Wright is ACC Pitcher of the Year, senior Claire Davidson is Player of the Year, sophomore Aminah Vega is Defensive Player of the Year, and of course, Young came away with the Coach of the Year hardware.

Duke is parlaying its on-field success to off-field success. This year, for the first time in program history, the Blue Devils hosted the ACC Championships, adding a brand-new video board to the outfield. The 2,274 fans officially in attendance were the most in the history of that game.

Returning to fan Tammy Spellman, who’s watching the Women’s College World Series from Oklahoma City as she promised, she doesn’t want the energy towards women’s sports to go away anytime soon.

“As a female supporter of athletics, it’s ‘how do we keep it going then? How do we keep it going past this year?” Spellman said.

She has hope. She sees the team signing balls after the games for girls and boys and sees the crowds expand.

“It’s grown tremendously, clearly, since I was an athlete long ago, but it’s just keeping that momentum now is going to be what’s going to be exciting to be a part of.”

But what about this year’s team? Let’s revisit one last prediction, this time from Vega:

“Oh, we’re going to the College World Series. That’s our goal: conquer adversity and then play for June,”

Step one? Check. Step two?

“We’re going to get there, and right when we get there, we’re going to win it.”