May 25, 2012

Free of Mind: Wigrizer Relaxes on Road to Final Four

Dan Wigrizer has been in and out of the starting lineup since his freshman year at Duke. Ahead of his third straight final four appearance, the junior says he's more relaxed than ever.
© Jim O'Connor

by Matt Forman | | Twitter

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Dan Wigrizer heard the murmurs outside Durham suggesting he had lost his grasp on Duke's starting goalie spot earlier this season.

"Oh yeah, of course I heard them," Wigrizer said Thursday afternoon at Media Day, standing on the Gillette Stadium turf while soaking in the atmosphere. "People are always going to talk."

Now, when asked to reflect on those swirling rumors — substantiated or not — Wigrizer can chuckle. The joke is on them.

"Externally, I don't feel the pressure anymore," he said.

Where are the doubters now? It's no longer in question: Wigrizer is Duke's starting goalie. He's playing the best lacrosse of his career, having led the Blue Devils to victories in 12 of their last 13 games entering Saturday's semifinal showdown with Maryland.

It has to be a good feeling for Wigrizer, one of six goalies to lead their team to a national title as a true freshman, who despite that fact, has been the focus of consternation instead of congratulation throughout his career.

Let's take a brief trip down to Tobacco Road...

Wigrizer went to Duke as the expected backup to Sean Brady, the heir apparent to Rob Schroeder. But with Brady suspended for a violation of team rules, Wigrizer was inserted between the pipes as a freshman. He gave up 10 or more goals in eight of Duke's first 10 games but settled in toward end of the regular season. Then, Wigrizer gave up 14 goals on 23 shots against Virginia in the ACC Tournament, and he lost his starting spot to Mike Rock.

Four different goalies, including Wigrizer, saw action in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament for the Blue Devils, but Wigrizer played every minute of the final four victories against Virginia and Notre Dame. Still, he was overshadowed in that 2010 final by Fighting Irish goalie Scott Rodgers.

Wigrizer started all 17 games and recorded a .550 save percentage as a sophomore, but he still entered 2012 as "a question mark," as Lacrosse Magazine's season preview story described. "Fifth-year senior Mike Rock will push [Wigrizer] and freshman U.S. U19 team goalie Kyle Turri, Justin's brother, is lurking."

Wigrizer described this season as a "rollercoaster ride." He made 16 stops in an early-season 7-3 loss to Notre Dame but suffered a concussion in practice the following week. It was Wigrizer's third concussion in the last year, so he knew he had to take it slow.

"The season was downhill from there," Wigrizer said. "The concussion was even worse because of my past history with concussions. It's a brain injury. It's not like a broken leg where you can just throw on a cast. It's something we don't know much about. You have all this stuff going on with football. It's a brain, not a bone."

After missing three games — a stretch that included an ACC loss to Maryland —Wigrizer was cleared to play 36 hours before Duke's game against then-No. 9 Loyola. Wigrizer allowed seven goals out of eight shots on goal. He was pulled before halftime.

"If you're cleared, you're going to play," Wigrizer said. "I had two days of very, very limited practice. I wasn't really seeing the ball during live drills. It was tough stepping into that game. It was the worst game that I've ever played in my entire life. It just didn't go well."

That's when the message board banter hit a high. Would Wigrizer play the role of a modern-day Wally Pipp, losing his spot while injured to Lou Gehrig? Could Duke turn the reigns over to Turri, the highly regarded freshman recruit who played well against Maryland? Did Mike Rock give them the best chance to win? At 3-3, could the Blue Devils afford to make changes?

"When I missed games, Kyle Turri and Mike Rock went in, and they both won. Kyle's a great goalie and played well. He has a ton of potential. He's going to do great things in his career. Maybe that helped me out in the long run? Maybe that got me working harder mentally? Whether it did or didn't, I don't know. It definitely focused me. When you're not starting and you're used to starting, you don't like the feeling."

Though Wigrizer started each of the next six games — all wins — that feeling resurfaced against Syracuse on April 1. Wigrizer was pulled for a roughly five-minute stretch in the second half of that game after surrendering the lead, though the officials forced him to leave because he had blood on his knee. "But there certainly was discussion [about pulling Wigrizer] before that," Duke coach John Danowski said. "I'm not going to say there wasn't."

Wigrizer re-entered and made four fourth-quarter stops to literally save the game, a 12-10 win over the Orange at the Big City Classic.

"Going into the fourth quarter against Syracuse I said, 'Look, I might not have played well yet, but this is the fourth quarter. If I can play well, I can completely change the game around. And completely change how I'm playing.'"

Then, two weeks later, Wigrizer took it another step in Duke's preparation for top-ranked Virginia.

"One of the first games of the season, I had my music blasting and coach Galloway walked up to me. He said, 'Dude, you're a junior now. You don't need that stuff.'"

-- Duke goalie Dan Wigrizer

"I just knew going into the Virginia game, that if I wanted to turn the season around, that this was going to be the game to do it," he said. "That was it. That was a great start to what's come so far the rest of the year."

He played arguably his best game of the season, making 14 saves to slow the Cavaliers' high-powered offense. And ever since, Wigrizer has been stout for the Blue Devils, whose defense has clicked in the second half of the season.

"He was thrown into being the starting goalie as a freshman when that was not the plan," Danowski said. "I don't think anyone thought that was the plan when Danny arrived on campus. After a while, everything slows down a little bit. Everything becomes a little bit easier. We've seen a more relaxed person in the goal, and he's doing things he's never done before in the goal. He has had done a great job of maturing."

Volunteer assistant coach John Galloway, who also won a national championship as a freshman goalie at Syracuse in 2008, helped Wigrizer get to a point where he can just relax. Play the position he knows. Not worry about outside distractions.

"I always knew I needed to relax," Wigrizer said. "I knew mentally that I had to chill. Last year, all the other coaches said the same thing as well. We talked about relaxing. They said, 'You get very excitable.' Just getting pumped up, really into it, moving too much. Instead of just hanging out, relaxing and letting the ball come to you. You don't need to make the play. Let the ball come to you and then stop the ball. Coach Galloway, he's there at every timeout, every time we get off the field. He's usually like, 'Hey, what's going on?' Hanging out, small talk like that. That's huge for me."

For Wigrizer, whose energetic, outgoing personality makes him one of the team's favorites, relaxing is easier said than done. But he has been able to find a "happy medium" in the second half of the season, "just getting into my zone."

"It's not so much relaxing as clearing my mind, but I do that by relaxing," Wigrizer said. "I really try not to think about much whatsoever. Try not to think about the game, or what's going to happen.

"In the locker room, you'll see me in a chair, completely slouched over, maybe re-taping my stick or looking at. Literally expressionless. If you were to see me, you wouldn't think this kid is going to play a huge game. You'd be like, 'What is that kid doing?' It's as if I'm just sitting on a couch watching TV. Just hanging out. I don't get mentally, physically fired up. I just kind of calm down."

Which is the exact opposite as what Wigrizer did two years ago, when he was a baby-faced freshman at the final four. "Back then, it was Eminem in my iPod earphones. Hard rap music. Completely blasting music trying to get pumped up.

"One of the first games of the season, I had my music blasting and coach Galloway walked up to me. He said, 'Dude, you're a junior now. You don't need that stuff.' And I said to him, 'You're completely right.' I'm just going to go out, play and do my thing."

When a reporter asked Wigrizer on Thursday what the feeling is like to be in Foxborough, he smiled. "Pretty used to it now. Third one in a row. It's just another lacrosse weekend."

Totally calm, totally in control.

And without putting the cart before the horse, Wigrizer is two wins away from claiming a second national championship.

If that happens, then there might be new mumbles outside Durham, debating Wigrizer's place among elite company.

Getting Acquainted With the Environs

All four teams practiced at Gillette Stadium on Friday afternoon for about an hour, in reverse order of their Media Day appearances Thursday.

More than anything, the teams were getting used to the environment, familiarizing themselves with the sightlines and reviewing the game plan.

Meanwhile, the stadium operations crew was going through final preparations for the weekend's festivities. The ESPN SkyCam swooped down close to the field between practices, checking out the angles it'll be able to capture and bring to homes across the country.

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