April 20, 2011

Duke Enjoys Success Outside the Limelight

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Senior attackman Zach Howell (34g, 12a) paces a deep Duke offense that otherwise disguises the damage it can do. Twenty-six players have scored for the Blue Devils.

© Jim O'Connor

The Duke men's lacrosse team is young and capable of some unpredictable feats, including some it would rather not repeat. With three freshmen and three sophomores in their starting lineup, the seventh-ranked Blue Devils (10-4) have had their share of pendulum swings in the spring of 2011.

First, the clunkers. A week after getting pushed around by a much more experienced, now top-ranked Notre Dame team, Duke was clueless on offense on Feb. 26, when it produced a 7-3 stinker at Penn, a loss that dropped its record to 1-2 and sparked a number of personnel and position changes. In back-to-back losses to Syracuse (13-11) and Denver (12-9) earlier this month, the Blue Devils lost some poise before large crowds at the Meadowlands and in Bethpage, N.Y.

But, when you are as young, skilled and athletic as the Blue Devils are, talent and the calming hands of a good coach have a way of leading you back to the right place.

Sandwiched in between those two-game stumbles was a seven-game winning streak that began on March 5 with a season-changing, 9-8 win over Maryland in overtime and included five-goal beatdowns of Carolina, Loyola and Brown. Then, there was Saturday's 13-11 win over struggling Virginia, which was without injured attackman Steele Stanwick (calf). Duke scored six of the game's first seven goals and cruised.

One thing Duke coach John Danowski has learned is these Blue Devils have bounce.

"Nothing prepares or teaches a young team like losing," Danowski said. "It's been a year of ups and downs. But when you step away from it for a while, you realize it all makes sense."

Welcome to the most enjoyable ride for Danowski during his five-year hitch in Durham, where Duke is preparing to host this weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament as the top seed. The Blue Devils have swept Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia, all of which are 1-2 against the league.

Gone are the stars that defined Duke lacrosse and captivated fans for years, guys such as Zack
Greer, Ned Crotty, Max Quinzani and, of course, Matt Danowski. Gone also is the specter of the 2006 rape hoax/scandal that gutted that season prematurely, cost coach Mike Pressler his job, and hovered over the program, as players for the previous three years took advantage of a controversial NCAA ruling allowing them an extra year of eligibility.

There's no more grumbling about unfair advantages from the outside, and on the inside at Duke, the air around the defending national champs feels unusually fresh again. The talk is mostly just about what's happening between the lines and in the boxes, on a playing field that is unquestionably even.

And there are plenty of good things going on. Led by senior attackman Zach Howell (34 goals, 12 assists), dynamic freshman attackmen Jordan Wolf (22, 14) and Christian Walsh (15, 10) and one of the deeper group of midfielders in the game, the Blue Devils have eight different players who have scored at least 10 goals or 15 points.

The upside for Duke appears as limitless as any of its ACC brethren. The Blue Devils are explosive and balanced on offense, gaining more discipline on defense, and reveling in the fact that opponents don't know where the damage is coming from next. An astounding 26 different players have scored at least once.

"One nice thing is the whole aura of the '06 dilemma is over. We haven't had to deal with all of the external B.S. we've had to deal with the last few years," senior defenseman Tom Montelli said. "It's just us. We're a young, inexperienced team no one really cares about. This team doesn't have any limelight superstars. It's a collective group of guys who are going to have to earn everything they get. I like how we're responding to that."

Duke has responded to plenty of change. After the Penn debacle, Danowski shuffled the cards in a big way.

Wolf moved from midfield to attack, where Walsh moved into the starting lineup. Sophomore Josh Offit slid down to join speedy sophomore David Lawson on the second midfield, where they have combined for 34 points. Midfielders Robert Rotanz (18 goals) settled in with sophomore Jake Tripucka (15 points) and junior Justin Turri (20 points) on the first line. And on defense, Montelli slid from his LSM spot to close defense, where he and sophomore goalie Dan Wigrizer have anchored a unit that includes freshman Chris Hipps and sophomore Bill Conners down low.

The Blue Devils are still learning, still very much a work in progress. But opponents next month would be well-advised not to go to sleep on a team that averages nearly 13 goals, grabs 37 ground balls a game, is shooting 34.2 percent and moves in a way that resembles a track team. Danowski loves the energy and vibe around this group.

"Maybe it's more normal this year," said Danowski, who replaced Pressler in the summer of 2006 and immediately functioned as program caretaker and psychologist as much as head coach. "For my first four years, we were an older, senior-led team driven by 2006 and the 'cause.' This year, we're back to yelling and screaming at kids, trying to get freshmen to transition from the high school game, trying to develop chemistry between underclassmen and upperclassmen. It's fun."

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