Duke softball hosts NCAA Regional. What to know about the Blue Devils’ bracket

The road to the Women’s College World Series officially begins this weekend when No. 10 seed Duke hosts an NCAA Regional.

The Blue Devils (47-6) enter the postseason with ACC regular season and tournament titles on their resume. They’ll welcome Morgan State, Utah and South Carolina to Durham in the double-elimination tournament.

Going into the weekend, the biggest question is how will a Power Five conference champion respond after being left out of the top eight seeds? Head coach Marissa Young and senior catcher Kelly Torres said the team has additional motivation and a chip on its shoulder.

“It’s disappointing for us,” Young said on Wednesday. “We feel like we’ve had a great year; one of our best years yet. But, the bottom line is: We still have the opportunity to accomplish everything we want to accomplish. We just need to take care of business for this regional at home and let the chips fall where they may.”

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Torres said the team, despite its disappointment, has used this experience to fuel its preparations for what it hopes to be a long postseason run. The Blue Devils have been reminded to focus on their brand of softball — aggressive, high-effort and defensive-minded — as opposed to focusing on the venue or opponent.

Duke remains one of the most well-rounded teams in the nation, ranking in the top 15 for batting average (.328), fielding percentage (.976), scoring (6.81) and strikeouts to walks ratio (3.66). It ranks No. 3 in earned run average (1.54), shutouts (19) and winning percentage (.887).

Every team in the field, however, has multiple losses on its record. There are a number of mid-major teams who earned spots in the tournament that have upsets over major conference opponents.

The sport has also seen increased parity over the past decade. Four different teams have won the national title. Eight different teams finished second. UCLA lost in its own regional last season against Liberty. Charlotte has wins over five power programs, including Florida State. Louisiana ended Oklahoma’s 71-game win streak.

That chaos should be on full display this postseason, and it’s pushing teams to be better.

“I think you have to show up with consistency every single day. It challenges you with that,” Young said of the increased competition. “There’s no more winning because you should or you’re more talented. You have to show up and compete for seven innings, and I think our group has done a really good job of doing that all season long.”

Duke players celebrate following the Blue Devils’ 6-3 win over Florida State in the ACC Tournament final on Saturday, May 11, 2024, in Durham, N.C.
Duke players celebrate following the Blue Devils’ 6-3 win over Florida State in the ACC Tournament final on Saturday, May 11, 2024, in Durham, N.C.

Duke’s argument for being top eight

NCAA selection committee chairman Kurt McGuffin said in a TV interview that the Blue Devils’ strength of schedule hurt the team’s placement.

Duke, however, ranks No. 3 in RPI, which accounts for strength of schedule in the formula. It went 11-2 against teams in the RPI Top 25.

Its non-conference strength of schedule outranks No. 5 seed Oklahoma State (67) and No. 3 seed Tennessee (81). No. 7 Missouri, No. 4 Florida and Duke rank 56, 57 and 58, respectively, in non-conference SOS.

Additionally, the Blue Devils’ overall strength of schedule (15) outranks Tennessee (19), No. 2 seed Oklahoma (21) and Oklahoma State (35).

Duke also played Oklahoma in its season opener in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where it lost to the reigning national champions, 3-0. For context, the Sooners outscored opponents by an average of 6.4 runs in its wins this season.

Its schedule featured games against five power programs, but Duke’s numbers took a hit due to Michigan State, Iowa State and Nebraska’s lackluster seasons. The Cornhuskers were an expected tournament team before its ace and former OU pitcher Jordy Bahl was injured in the season opener.

The Blue Devils have wins over eight tournament teams, including Liberty and Charlotte. Both programs played the second- and third-hardest non-conference schedules, and the Niners rank No. 25 in the RPI.

“If you dig into the numbers, we’re right up there with the Tennessees and definitely ahead of Missouri,” Young said. “But, again, it is what it is. Control what we can control. We just want to go out and continue to dominate and play Duke softball.”

Duke is set to play at No. 7 seed Missouri if both teams advance to the Super Regionals. If Missouri does not advance out of its regional and Duke does, it would still have the opportunity to host.

The Blue Devils’ first opponent: Morgan State

Morgan State (35-18) comes to Durham from the MEAC after winning its conference tournament.

The Bears do not have the same kind of hitting numbers that Duke has, but they are a tough team to beat in the circle and aren’t afraid to make a ruckus on the base paths.

Morgan State ranks No. 21 nationally in ERA (2.22) and No. 23 in stolen bases per game (1.77). The team has used seven different pitchers this season who have thrown 256 strikeouts.

Additionally, its pitching staff has only allowed 65 walks, 13 hit batters, 139 runs and 12 home runs.

Young said her team will need to play clean defense and make adjustments quickly to the Bears’ different types of pitchers.

“You can’t overlook anyone in this game. We’ve seen it all throughout the season,” Torres added. “It doesn’t matter who you play, and who’s across in the other dugout. They come and play their best against Duke softball. We can’t really sleep on anyone.”

The Blue Devils and Bears face off at 2:30 p.m. Friday in the first round.

Who else is coming to Durham

Utah (34-20) and South Carolina (34-22) also look to keep their seasons alive this weekend after showing inconsistent results this season. They rank outside of the RPI Top 25.

The Utes advanced to the Women’s College World Series last spring and look to be hitting a stride. Utah lost to UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship, 2-1, after beating Oregon and Stanford.

Abby Dayton leads the Utes at the plate, ranking No. 9 in the nation and No. 1 in the league for batting average (.438). Meanwhile, pitcher Mariah Lopez has thrown 214 strikeouts and averages 7.3 strikeouts per seven innings.

The Utes also average 1.24 stolen bases per game.

South Carolina has losses to Clemson, N.C. State, Wichita State and South Alabama, while picking up wins over Texas A&M, Florida and Kentucky. It lost in the SEC Tournament to A&M.

The Gamecocks are not known for their high-octane offense and will rely on their pitching and defense. Alana Vawter leads the bullpen, which ranks No. 15 for ERA (2.07) and No. 23 for shutouts (13). The Gamecocks are also No. 9 for double plays per game (0.55).

Utah and South Carolina play their first game at noon on Friday.

“A lot of people look at our regional and would think ‘Yeah, that’s a tough regional,’” Torres said. “To have a difficult No. 2 and No. 3 seed, now they’re gonna have to throw their aces to each other before they come and play us. It does come to a little bit of an advantage that they’re going to play their best before having to come face us.”

How to watch the NCAA softball regional

All games on Friday and Saturday will be available on ESPN+.

Friday’s game times: Noon, 2:30 p.m.

Saturday’s game times: 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m.

Sunday’s game times and TV channel have not been announced.