Duke softball sets program record with run-rule win over South Carolina in NCAA Regional

Duke softball continued its quest for a national title Saturday and set another program record in the process.

The No. 10 seed Blue Devils downed South Carolina, 8-0, in an NCAA Regional winners’ bracket game, earning their 49th win of the season, a new school record.

“I don’t think that we’re focused on that,” Duke head coach Marissa Young said. “We’re focused on the end goal, which is getting to the Women’s College World Series. We know we just have to keep taking one game at a time in front of us and continuing to get better.”

Duke (49-6) will play at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, against an opponent to be determined. South Carolina (34-23) could get another shot at the Blue Devils. The Gamecocks were set to play an elimination game Saturday afternoon, but the game was delayed until 1 p.m. Sunday due to weather. The winner will play the Blue Devils.

Duke knew South Carolina wasn’t a heavy-hitting squad; the Gamecocks are known more for their pitching and defense. USC entered the game ranked No. 15 in ERA (2.07) and No. 9 for double plays per game (0.55), one of which it successfully pulled off in the first frame.

The Blue Devils fired on full cylinders to earn the well-rounded win.

“Great energy. They came out and competed well and really dominated from the start,” Young said. “I thought that Jala (Wright) was outstanding; really dominated in the circle. Defense played well behind her and, obviously, key players up and down the lineup had really good at bats and made things happen.”

Center fielder D’Auna Jennings highlighted the scoring, hitting her first career home run in the bottom of the third and putting Duke on the board. Young moved Jennings to the top of the batting order ahead of the ACC Championship game after she hit 3 of 4 in the conference semifinals. The sophomore is 7 of 12 at the plate through three games.

Jennings isn’t typically a home run hitter — this was just the third in her entire career — and sat in the dugout in disbelief after it happened.

I just literally want to do my job. I never go up there trying to do a big swing,” Jennings said. “So, it was exciting. It was awesome. Going back to see my team, so happy for me, that’s what I live for. I live for being able to do a job and being able to execute for my team to put us in a better situation.”

Duke continued its scoring in the subsequent inning thanks to sloppy South Carolina pitching. Shortstop Jada Baker and designated player Francesca Frelick reached base after getting hit and advanced into scoring position with a double steal. They crossed home on first baseman Gisele Tapia’s single. Tapia, who bats in the nine spot, has accounted for five RBIs in the past three contests.

The team calls Tapia “Grandma G,” and Jennings said the graduate student’s leadership and constant learning has played a big role in Duke’s success.

“She’s taking a lot more pitches, she’s walking, and she’s making pitchers miss and executing that pitch,” Jennings said. “The lineup has been mixed up pretty often throughout these past weeks, but I think her being (in the No. 9 spot), being able to flip it over, get us going and score runs when we get runners on is major.”

Two innings later, ACC Player of the Year and National Player of the Year finalist Claire Davidson hit a two-out, bases-loaded single. The right fielder’s second hit of the day drove in Baker and Frelick. Davidson is 5 of 7 with six RBIs in two regional games.

Finally, patience at the plate paid off. The Blue Devils scored five runs on four hits and two RBI walks in the bottom of the sixth.

Wright earned her second straight start in the circle, and the senior also proved why she earned the ACC’s top positional honor. Wright held the Gamecocks scoreless, throwing nine strikeouts, and recorded a trio of 1-2-3 innings.

Young expected to use left handed pitcher Cassidy Curd in relief, but Wright’s strong outing gave Curd another day of rest.

“This is kind of like a hometown game for me. I know a lot of the girls on the South Carolina team,” Wright said. “That added extra motivation to say, ‘Hey, I got you,’ when I see them post game. I just wanted to do what’s best for my team and that extra motivation helped.”