April 24, 2012

The Midfielder: Red-Hot Duke Aims to Stay Humble

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

CJ Costabile and the Duke Blue Devils practiced in a Richmond, Va., parking lot on the off day between the ACC semifinal and championship game.
© Jim O'Connor 

After Duke beat Maryland 6-5 in the opening game of the ACC Tournament, Terrapins coach John Tillman called Duke "a team who has been on fire" and "the hottest team in the country."

The Monday Midfielder — after a travel day back from a long weekend in Charlottesville, today we're calling ourselves just "The Midfielder" — didn't disagree with Tillman. But I waited until after the Blue Devils topped Tobacco Road rival North Carolina 12-9 in the ACC Championship to get Duke's thoughts on the matter.

I posed it directly to coach John Danowski: You've won 10 straight games. Is Duke the hottest team in the country?

"What have you done for me lately?" Danowski responded rhetorically. "If we lose Friday night, you're a bum again."

And I asked it directly to ACC Tourney MVP Christian Walsh: "I don't know about that. We've had a good run. It's been very fun," he said. "We're just going to keep working hard. Coach doesn't let us settle for anything. It really doesn't matter if we win or lose, we still approach practice the same way. We're just going to try to keep getting better."

Hard to argue with the approach. After watching five of the nation's top-10 teams lose last weekend — and 10 of the top-20 — we know no team is immune to hiccups. So you have to be your own worst critic. It's not about who you beat, it's about how you play. And Danowski knows there's still room to improve.

That's why, even after the Blue Devils beat then-No. 1 Virginia two weekends ago, Danowski "really pushed the kids" at practice last Monday and Tuesday, arguably the toughest back-to-back days the team has had all year. With temperatures around 90 degrees both days, Duke practiced close to three hours each day.

Then, between ACC Tournament games Friday and Sunday, Duke practiced in a parking lot in Richmond, where they were staying. (The ACC Outdoor Track & Field Championships were also being held in Charlottesville last weekend, and there were no available hotels.)

"Staying in Richmond was actually a positive, because there were no distractions," Danowski said. "No parents, no friends. It was just us and the hotel. Just with us being in the hotel for a day and a half was great. We actually practiced yesterday in a parking lot. That was great, because it teaches your kids to be flexible, to adjust to any situation. Whether you're practicing in a parking lot, turf field or beautiful grass field, you've got to focus and get ready."

But the beauty of Danowski's style — as Lacrosse Magazine learned while embedded in Durham for three days while the Blue Devils prepared for Virginia — is that he knows when to back off, and he knows how to push the right buttons.

After Tuesday's tough practice, Danowski made a point of reinforcing his belief in his players. For example, Danowski told senior midfielder Rob Rotanz and sophomore attackman Jordan Wolf — who both have strong right-handed tendencies — that he "believed" Rotanz and Wolf could score with their left hand. Rotanz scored his first career left-handed goal in the fourth quarter against Carolina, and Wolf buried a left-handed turnaround jump shot driving from X.

On Sunday morning, just hours before Duke was slated to take the field against the Tar Heels, Danowski took another step to lighten the mood. He had his players participate in a synchronized swimming competition in the hotel pool.

Vintage Danowski.

Lacrosse Magazine delved further into Danowski's personality in Episode 1 of our three-part all-access video series with the Blue Devils, which can be watched in full here.

Three Days in Durham

A few other highlights, thoughts and observations from The Midfielder's week in Durham...

- Funniest moment of the week: Danowski's pre-game stroll. If you've ever been to a game at Klockner Stadium, you know the dressing rooms aren't located on site. There are locker rooms underneath the seating structure, but they aren't very big, and are only used for immediate pre-game, halftime and post-game needs. So teams dress in University Hall, the former basketball arena that's still used as a practice facility, a roughly five-minute walk away. Once Duke was ready for warm-ups, the team made the roughly quarter-mile walk up to Klockner from University. Danowski, flanked by his staff — assistants Chris Gabrielli, Ron Caputo and John Galloway — followed close behind. After nearly getting side-swiped by a car while crossing Copley Road, Danowski waved to the college-aged driver and said, 'Have a wonderful day,' except he wasn't being facetious. He then approached a Virginia fan selling tickets and asked, 'How much are you selling for?' 'Eight bucks apiece,' the orange-and-blue clad fan said. 'Nah. Too much. Too much,' Danowski responded. He greeted the ticket-takers at the stadium gates. 'Lovely to see you.' Walking up the grand promenade entrance to the field, a concession cart employee handed Danowski a free can of Cheerwine. He accepted the bubbly soft drink at first, but handed it back in fear of committing a violation. While making his way under the stadium, Danowski looked at the food options for sale: peanuts, pretzels and 'Mmm, cracker jacks.'

John Danowski's pregame stroll into Klockner Stadium on April 13 was an entertaining one. He even asked a scalper how much tickets were selling for. "Eight bucks apiece," was the response. "Too much," Danowski said.
© Matt Riley

- Most enlightening moment: Figuring out what it means to break down film. Lacrosse coaches aren't as guilty of it as football coaches, but you always hear them talking about the importance of watching film. It sounds glamorous, right? Wrong. It's actually pretty boring: a wide-field camera view, not too different than what's on TV, except without audio. Danowski and his assistants took notes, and they stopped the tape every now and again to see something a second time. But Duke knows Virginia, and Duke knows Duke. Danowski has seen plenty of the Cavaliers in recent years, and he's not going to change much about the way the Blue Devils play. "We're not going to change a lot of what we do week-to-week, because in our sport, that's not really necessary," Danowski said. "The focus should always be on getting our team better."

So what are the coaches evaluating? "This is what we take a look at," Danowski said. "How did we play? What did we do in that game? What are we teaching? What do we need to improve upon? We really focus more on our mistakes instead of the positive part. Where are we making our mistakes? And how do we correct them? Is it scheme? Is it personnel? Is it teaching? Is it a combination of those areas? If it's personnel, that's easy. Get the guy out, get another guy in. If it's what we're teaching, then are we teaching it not well enough? If the guys aren't picking it up, it doesn't matter. Then we have to change what we're doing."

There are six main areas the Duke coaching staff grades: Faceoffs, special teams (man-up, man-down), box offense (6-on-6), box defense, transition play and ground balls.

- Danowski's most impressive non-coaching attribute: Knowledge of music. Are you kidding me? Dino can sing along — knowing all the words — to everything from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem, The Allman Brothers to Lil' John. He's not afraid to break out the occasional air guitar either.

- Noticeable long-term impact potential: Danowski developing future head coaches. In recent years, Danowski's former Hofstra assistants Seth Tierney and Joe Amplo landed head-coaching gigs. Here's a guess: Gabrielli and Caputo will be next, and if he wants to, Galloway won't follow far behind either. Gabrielli has to be on the short list of top defensive coordinators in the country, along with Notre Dame's Gerry Byrne, Maryland's Kevin Warne and Hopkins' Bill Dwan. Caputo has spent the last nine seasons alongside Danowski, and he oversees the Blue Devils' midfield and faceoff specialists; just take a look at CJ Costabile. And Dan Wigrizer has improved under Galloway, the winningest goalie in Syracuse history whom several described as adding "youthful exuberance" to the staff. Galloway, only 23, helps work the Devils' box like a maestro.

ACC Tournament Takeaways

Quick-hitters from the ACC Championship, which showcased four of the nation's top seven teams on the same stage...

- Don't sound the fire alarm on Virginia. The Cavaliers are going to be fine, they just need to work through this lull — and, mind you, Virginia has faced five top-10 teams in a row. "It feels like we're struggling a little bit right now. We've just got to get it figured out and get to it," coach Dom Starsia said. "It may be that the key is just winning a game. ... There's hardly a team in the country that's been through the stretch of games we've been through. We've asked a lot of these guys. It just feels like we're a little tired. I don't want to leave that excuse out there. It is what it is. We've just got to work our way through it." Starsia, like Danowski — and Virginia's senior-laden roster — recognizes the season is about winning in May. These three losses have exposed holes in the Cavaliers' game, but those will only force them to adjust. Defensive substitutions will have to happen at opportune times; they can't let teams take advantage of so many unsettled, transition opportunities. And offensively, Colin Briggs and Rob Emery will have to penetrate-and-pass to create 2-on-1 situations on the opposite side. Steele Stanwick will be Steele Stanwick.

- North Carolina is scary. As ESPN play-by-play broadcaster Eamon McAnaney said on Friday's broadcast, the Tar Heels are starting to look more and more like the team everyone expected in the preseason: the "Miami Heat of lacrosse." They have so many weapons on the offensive end, and the defense is starting to play together. "I feel if we play our best and execute, we can play with anyone in the country, and I think we proved that this weekend," coach Joe Breschi said. Despite working through chemistry issues early in the season, the Heels are tied with Duke for the most top-20 wins in the country. "The biggest thing for us was that there was so much hype," Breschi said. "There expectations poured on top of them, saying: 'This is what you've got to do. This is how you've got to play. You're going to be this, that and the other thing.' It's almost like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. And our guys just kept fighting, scrapping. We were 4-2 early, having two tough losses there against very good teams. We shuffled some things around, and then kind of settled the fourth quarter of the Duke game on some young guys who just caused a lot of havoc for defenses. We started scoring goals, and we're in double-digits in every game since. That's been exciting."

- The script has flipped on Maryland, and that might not be a bad thing. The Terps entered the season with questions about their inexperienced defense having to replace Max Schmidt, Brett Schmidt and Ryder Bohlander. But Goran Murray, Brian Cooper and Michael Erhardt have gelled, while Jesse Bernhardt is one of the nation's top long-stick midfielders. Maryland's fast-sliding scheme is suffocating to say the least, and held Duke to only two goals in 6-on-6 situations. The offense doesn't have a superstar, but Owen Blye and Joe Cummings have both shown the ability to take over at times, and having a healthy Mike Chanenchuk could make a big difference. Chanenchuk, who had surgery before the start of the season, ended a five-game scoreless skid with his two-goal performance Friday. The Terps shot 5-of-31 against Duke, and they're at their best when they have extended offensive possessions. "I really felt like, [after] halftime, we resorted to taking the first opportunity, not the best opportunity," coach John Tillman said. "We've been at our best when we've been choosy with our choices, when we've waited for a really good shot, not the first shot. At times, I think we got away from that."

- What do ACC Tournament results mean? A look at the last seven seasons...

Year ACC Championship Game Result NCAA Tournament Round Reached
2011 Maryland 11, Duke 9 Maryland: championship game, Duke: final four
(Virginia won national championship.)
2010 Virginia 10, Maryland 6 Virginia: final four, Maryland: quarterfinals
(Duke won national championship.)
2009 Duke 15, North Carolina 13 Duke: final four, North Carolina: quarterfinals
(Virginia made final four.)
2008 Duke 11, Virginia 9 Duke: final four, Virginia: final four
2007 Duke 12, Virginia 9 Duke: championship game, Virginia: first round
2006 Virginia 11, Maryland 5 Virginia: national champion, Maryland: final four
2005 Maryland 9, Duke 5 Maryland: final four, Duke: championship game
(Virginia also made final four.)


History Lessons

- ESPN color analyst Quint Kessenich asked on the broadcast of Sunday's Duke-Carolina ACC title game: When was the last time Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, Cornell and Maryland all lost in the same weekend? The Midfielder did a little bit of research to find the answer... Depending on how technical you'd like to get, the answer might be never. If we stretch the bounds of the definition of a "weekend," all five lost around May 2, 1964. Syracuse won on the 2nd of that May but lost on the 6th, and the others lost on the 2nd. Before then, it last happened May 9, 1953. Syracuse beat Cornell that day, so it wasn't possible for all of them to lose, but Syracuse had lost May 6. Prior to the 1950s, it's hard to get reliable date information for games played through media guides.

- Fifty years ago Monday, lacrosse graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.


Good day, and good lacrosse.

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