May 27, 2011

NCAA Final Four Notebook: Starless Duke Puts Doubters in Their Place

by Gary Lambrecht |

"I feel like I've been flying under the radar my whole lacrosse career," says Zach Howell, the Blue Devils' leading scorer with 42 goals and 58 points. "I really love flying under the radar."

© Kevin P. Tucker

As the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils prepare to play in their fifth consecutive NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament final four – and sixth in the past seven seasons – there is an extra air of satisfaction in the Duke locker room.

Several reasons explain this. First, this year's Blue Devils were considered by numerous prognosticators to be too young to go this deep into the playoffs. This is also the first time during its recent run of postseason success that Duke reached the final four without a superstar or a superstar combination (think Matt Danowski-Zack Greer or Ned Crotty-Max Quinzani).

And finally, Duke extended its national semifinals appearance streak without any perceived help from the NCAA. In 2007, a year after the infamous, phony rape scandal ended the season prematurely and cost head coach Mike Pressler his job, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to Duke seniors for the next three seasons. Don't think that last year's championship team, led by fifth-year seniors Crotty and Quinizani, didn't elicit backhanded compliments around the game.

"It's really nice not to have to listen to skeptics talk about how we couldn't have done this without a lot of fifth-year seniors," Duke senior midfielder Robert Rotanz said. "We don't have any great household names. We knew we were going to be very skilled and athletic. We just weren't sure who was going to step up."

"I feel like I've been flying under the radar my whole lacrosse career," said Duke senior attackman Zach Howell, who leads the Blue Devils with 42 goals and 58 points. "I really love flying under the radar, and our team has kind of done that all year for a change."

You can't hide from anybody Memorial Day weekend, and the Blue Devils (14-5) certainly are not flying under Maryland's radar, as the two familiar Atlantic Coast Conference rivals will tee it up for the third time this season. After making numerous changes following its 1-2 start – most notably putting freshmen Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh together on the starting attack unit – the Blue Devils responded with a season-changing, 9-8 overtime win over Maryland. Seven weeks later, the Terps countered with an 11-9 victory in the ACC tournament title game.

Old guard not done yet

Some pretty big names fell from the Division I men's lacrosse coaching ranks in the last year.

Last May, following Maryland's quarterfinal loss to eventual NCAA championship runner-up Notre Dame, Dave Cottle got the ax. So far in May 2011, Towson's Tony Seaman, Navy's Richie Meade and Rutgers' Jim Stagnitta have been shown the door. In each case, the sport lost leaders with at least 25 years of coaching experience.

Cottle was forced out because he failed to win a national championship during his nine years in College Park. Too many losing seasons cost Seaman and Stagnitta, while Meade's highly controversial "resignation" came after back-to-back losing seasons, including a 4-9 fall in 2011.

Whether the moves were sparked by impatient athletic directors, program stagnation or under-achieving is up for discussion. But the firings seem to point to a cycle of life. The old guard could be giving way to the younger hands.

But here come this year's final four entries, which include Duke's John Danowski, Denver's Bill Tierney and Virginia's Dom Starsia. Each coach has at least three decades invested in the sport and has won a combined 10 Division I championships.

Starsia, who has three titles at Virginia, became the all-time wins leader (327) with Virginia's quarterfinal upset of Cornell, which put the Cavaliers in their fourth straight final four. Danowski has 299 victories in 29 seasons, most of which were spent at Hofstra, and is going for his second championship. And Tierney, who led Princeton to six crowns and has Denver gunning for its first, has won 253 games in 24 seasons as a Division I head coach.

"Tell all of the young lions to hold onto their water," Starsia said. "We're not done yet."

How will hot weather affect Carraro's do-it-all routine?

It will be interesting to see how well Denver faceoff specialist/midfielder Chase Carraro fares in the expected heat and humidity in Baltimore this weekend. Carraro, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound sophomore from Louisville, Ky., is the ultimate workhorse.

Carraro has won 58.9 percent of his faceoff attempts, which ranks him 13th in the nation. He has taken a whopping 380 of Denver's 422 draws, and has been a transition igniter by scoring a number of his 19 goals after winning faceoffs. Carraro also has started on the first midfield in 11 games.

If Denver survives an expected offensive slugfest with Virginia on Saturday, how much will Carraro have left in the tank on Monday? Look for Denver coach Bill Tierney to monitor Carraro's time running on that midfield line, without obsessing about the turnaround time. Look for Carraro to shrug and get to work.

"Coming from Kentucky, I'm used to similar humidity to Baltimore, and it's a little hotter back home," Carraro said. "I've definitely had my bumps and bruises throughout the year, but if you make it to this point, you'll put your body through anything."

"Chase has been such a weapon for us," Tierney said. "When you get to the final four, it's all about winning on Saturday and not worrying about saving anything. You do whatever you can to get to Monday."

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