May 12, 2012

Focused Blue Devils Squeeze Orange in First Round

by Matt Forman | | Twitter | Live Blog Replay

Rob Rotanz was one of three Duke players to record a hat trick Saturday as the Blue Devils opened NCAA tournament action with a 12-9 win over Syracuse.
© Jim O'Connor

DURHAM, N.C. — Many lacrosse coaches, players and fans huddled in front of their television sets a week ago for Selection Sunday. Which teams made the NCAA tournament, and whose bubble burst? What were the pairings? Who was headed where?

That same night, from 9 to 10 p.m., Duke coach John Danowski held practice. The message to his team was clear. It's one that he echoes most seasons: Don't worry about your opponent. Worry about yourselves. Worry about playing Duke lacrosse.

Consider the message received. Duke rode a dominant effort on faceoffs and a strong showing from its senior class — especially Justin Turri, Rob Rotanz, CJ Costabile and Mike Manley, one day before the school's graduation ceremonies — to win its first-round matchup with Syracuse, 12-9, in front of 3,672 fans Saturday afternoon at Koskinen Stadium. It was the same site where Danowski hosted practice a week ago.

"As seniors, we stressed all week this was our last time ever playing on this field. It's been four years, and there's an urgency. If we lose today, it's over," Rotanz said. "We had a tough week of practice — people getting after each other. Everyone felt kind of like a bunch of pent-up animals. ... That just showed this means to us. We don't want to go home. We want to extend our time here at Duke as long as we possibly can."

The Blue Devils will now face Colgate in next weekend's quarterfinal round in Chester, Pa., after the Raiders upset sixth-seeded UMass.

At practice last Sunday, even if they were concentrating on themselves, Danowski and the Blue Devils had to be a bit surprised when they learned of their first-round matchup: lacrosse goliath Syracuse. Not exactly the best "prize" for landing the No. 3 seed in the big bracket. Despite early season struggles, the Orange saved their season by winning the Big East Tournament and landing the automatic qualifier. They were peaking at the right time after shuffling the deck.

"When we heard it was going to be Syracuse, it got everybody's attention immediately," Danowski said. "The focus in practice all week was undeniable, Syracuse is Syracuse. It's very hard to say that this is a different Syracuse team. It's not. They're talented, athletic, great coaching staff with a tremendous tradition. They are who we want to be one day, with all their championships and what they've accomplished in our sport."

The Orange entered the postseason unseeded for only the third time in school history, and the name "Syracuse" is all over the sport's record books: an NCAA-record 11 national championships, 12 four-time All-Americans and 20 players in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

But after making 22 consecutive final fours from 1983-2004, Syracuse has missed five of the last eight semifinals. Meanwhile, Duke is the only team to making the last five final fours. The Blue Devils became one step closer to making it six on Saturday. Like Danowski hopes, they're making a tradition of their own.

But how did it happen? Well, that was somewhat of a surprise. Instead of using Tewaaraton finalist and ground ball goblin Costabile at the faceoff X, Danowski relied on sophomore Brendan Fowler and junior Greg DeLuca to take draws and put Costabile on the wings.

"One of the things we noticed against Denver [last week in the Mile High Classic] is that, if somebody has a really talented draw man, we came in with Brendan in the fourth quarter, and he really gave us a spark," Danowski said. "We just said, 'Why don't we reverse that? Let's see.' If that didn't work out, now Costabile is stepping up. We thought that could give us an advantage, if we needed that today."

The switch worked. The Blue Devils won 17-of-24 faceoffs overall, including 8-of-10 in the third quarter when it mattered most, and Costabile scooped eight ground balls.

Syracuse defenseman Brian Megill called Syracuse's third quarter their "kryptonite."

"We let them go on a run and we just couldn't come back from it," Megill said.

Duke scored three goals in the game's first five minutes, but after Syracuse coach John Desko called timeout, the Orange settled in. They eventually clawed back from a four-goal deficit to tie the game at 5 in the opening minute of the third quarter. But Duke immediately answered with a four-goal flurry of its own, during which the Orange touched the ball once. Rotanz scored back-to-back goals, and sophomore attackmen Josh Dionne and Christian Walsh each added one. In the blink of an eye, it was 9-5.

"Brendan and Greg have been working hard all year, they just happened to get their shot today," Danowski said of the faceoff takers. "Originally the plan was we could bring CJ in as a sixth-man kind of thing. But because Brendan and Greg were doing so well, that wasn't necessary today. ... It's one of those things that you don't plan, that in the big games, somebody steps up and plays big. Brendan and Greg, and CJ on the wing, all had monster efforts."

Fowler was Duke's primary faceoff option early, but he suffered a shoulder injury late early in the second half that thrust DeLuca — who had taken 12 faceoffs all year — into action.

Poor faceoff play has hampered Syracuse all season. The difficulty cropped up again at the most inopportune time.

"It was a common theme this year," Desko said. "They'd score a goal, win the faceoff, go down and play offense again, and we just couldn't get the ball to our offense. We probably played defense 75 percent of the second half. Not much you can do with a very good offensive team like that."

Duke carved up Syracuse's defense by using its invert offense, especially in the first half. Midfielders Rotanz, Turri, Dave Lawson and Jake Tripucka initiated from X, and threw precision skip passes to the Blue Devil bombers up top. Turri led all scorers with five points (3 goals, 2 assists), and Rotanz added a hat trick.

"We kept the ball moving," Turri said. "We didn't settle for the first easy look. We didn't let the goalie make any easy saves. We were really patient, moved the ball around, and spread the ball to anybody. No one guy is the key to the offense. Anybody can have a day. Through that unselfish play, and with our patience, we were the benefactors."

Turri, a fifth-year senior, speaks like a seasoned veteran. He said he knew Danowski's decision to practice last Sunday was the right one.

"We talk about it a lot, especially from seniors. It might not hit the younger guys as hard. We just keep talking about playing one more week, going into each game. This could be my last week playing Duke lacrosse," Turri said. "That's what driving me, and a lot of seniors. To hang out with the guys one more week. To keep playing every day, but not looking past the day, whether it's a practice, a meeting, a team meal. Not looking past anything, and cherishing every moment that we have these guys. Who knows? We may never be as one group again. I don't know how many times I'm going to see these guys after we're done. I'm not looking past anything. Just being in every moment, in every day."

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