May 19, 2011

Duke Refuels Attack with Freshmen

by Mark Medina |

Zach Howell (left) has been a mentor for freshmen Christian Walsh (right) and Jordan Wolf, although they occasionally tease him for his intensity in practice.

© Peyton Williams

With little forewarning, Duke men's lacrosse coach John Danowski gathered his players and told them a simple message.

"You don't grow unless you experience things together."

The Blue Devils' had just lost to Penn on Feb. 26, marking their second consecutive defeat and the first time since 1986 they only scored three goals in a game. With Duke coming off a championship season and featuring a 10-member freshman class, Danowski focused less on wins and losses and more on how the team developed.

But it was time to make an adjustment.

To jumpstart Duke's offense, Danowski just alerted his team he would move up freshmen Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh to the attack line with senior Zach Howell, while moving senior Jesse Fehr and sophomore Josh Offit to midfield. Walsh initially remembered feeling "strange" about the move considering the sensitivity of taking an upperclassmen's spot. But the tactical shift proved instrumental in Duke (13-5) winning 10 of its next 13 games entering their quarterfinal matchup Sunday at 2:30 against Notre Dame in Foxborough, Mass.

There will be plenty of hype surrounding the rematch of the 2010 NCAA championship. There will be uncertainty leading up to game time whether sophomore goalkeeper Dan Wigrizer will play, since he sat out in Duke's 15-14 first-round victory last week over Delaware due to a concussion and hadn't been cleared to practice Tuesday like Danowski had initially hoped. And there will be intrigue on how the Blue Devils' revamped attack line will match with the Fighting Irish after beating Duke in its season opener without that combination.

Since the switch, Howell, Wolf and Walsh have accounted for 75 and 41 assists, while both Howell and Wolf have each recorded six hat tricks this season. This, despite losing 16 letterwinners from last season's NCAA championship team, including attackman Max Quinzani and midfielder Ned Crotty, who combined for nearly 500 career points and six All-American awards.

"We were all open to it," said Howell, who leads the Blue Devils in points (58) and goals (42). "I remember Coach said, 'Go out and play and try to have fun with it.'"

Although Wolf characterized that week in practice as "tough" and Danowski conceded he initially expected a "rugged transition," the switch immediately paid off. Duke's 9-8 overtime victory March 5 over Maryland featured Wolf scoring a hat trick and the game-winning goal, providing a sneak preview of future performances. That included Wolf's career-high seven-point effort in Duke's 14-12 win March 26 over Georgetown and Howell's five-point showing in the Blue Devils' NCAA tournament first-round win over Delaware.

The instant chemistry goes beyond Danowski's account that Howell, Wolf and Walsh have worked well with the midline and have equally strong attributes in dodging, feeding and shooting. As per team tradition, the Blue Devils' attack unit has weekly dinners every Thursday. Wolf said they have "good conversations" typically at campus eateries, such as Brooklyn Pizzeria and Noodles & Company.

"It's definitely helped with our comfort level," said Walsh, who's third on the team in points (31), goals (19) and assists (12). "It's not about lacrosse. We try to keep that on the field. We don't want to feel uptight or worried about the game."

So far, that formula's worked in various ways. Howell conceded he's hung out with Wolf and Walsh more since playing together. Wolf characterized Howell as a "big brother." And Walsh admitted he and Wolf have equally admired and teased Howell for his intensity in practice. As Howell pointed out, Danowski's tactical switch didn't "change our offensive game plan," but the lineup shuffling proved to be just the ingredient Duke needed to refuel its high-powered offense.

"Once we switched to attack, it was like we could do anything we wanted," said Wolf, who's second on the team in points (50), goals (30) and leads the team in assists (20). "It didn't matter what year we were or our talent level. We just felt really confident with what we were doing. "

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