September 23, 2013

30 in 30: How Does Duke Build Off National Championship Season?

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Blue Devils coach John Danowski (right) and Duke faceoff man Brendan Fowler (left) celebrate toward the end of May's national title game victory over Syracuse. Fowler is one of several key contributors to return to Durham this fall.
© Lee Weissman

How does the defending NCAA Division I men's lacrosse champion start off the fall? Same as every Duke team John Danowski has coached in the last eight years: with the basics.

The only organized lacrosse the Blue Devils will play today, and the rest of the week, will be confined to a 25-minute, no-contact skills session in front of one of four goals on the Duke practice field. It's so light that the players won't even wear shoulder or arm pads. That will happen four mornings this week — starting at 7:30 a.m. with off days on Wednesday and both days of the weekend — before the team gathers for weightlifting or running with Duke speed and conditioning coach Jeff Howser, a six-time ACC track champion.

The focus in the weight room, for the freshmen, is about learning how to lift. For them and everyone else, it's also about giving the maximum effort. "We want guys literally crawling out of the racks," Danowski said. "You have nothing left to give."

The emphasis with Howser in hour-long sessions isn't necessarily on getting in better physical shape, but improving speed, explosion and change of direction. "It's more detail-oriented," Danowski said. "You really have to pay attention and give great effort at the same time."

On the field, Danowski works with the goalies, teaching or re-enforcing details like the proper stance and moving to the ball, while volunteer assistant Joe Cinosky teaches the defensemen skills like proper approaches to an attacking player.

Matt Danowski, John's son who is back for a second season as a full-time assistant, takes the attackmen and defensive midfielders, and veteran assistant Ron Caputo handles the bulk of the midfielders.

Later in the week, the younger Danowski will teach Caputo's midfield group the same tactics the 2013 Major League Lacrosse MVP runner-up showed the attackmen, such as how to play behind the cage and on the wings. And Caputo will teach offensive midfield skills to the attackmen and d-middies, so that everyone gets a taste.

"It might be something as simple as getting separation behind the cage when you feed," John Danowski said. "We show them how to do it and drill them. And tomorrow it might be, how do you get to that point? You need change of direction before you can separate. Then you have two things. We really just try to teach and keep it really simple."

Before the team steps on the field for what most would consider a traditional practice on Sept. 30, the Blue Devils will have had 16 weight room sessions, 16 running sessions and eight skills sessions. They'll have already developed a routine of fitting practice time around a class schedule. Then they'll practice together for about four weeks and, in a rarity for the Duke program under Danowski, play a fall event, albeit a practice day at first-year program Furman. It's about a four-drive southwest to Greenville, S.C. The date is to be determined, Danowski said, but it will be in late October.

"The way we do it makes sense for this place," Danowski said of fall plans. "With the weather and our facilities, we're kind of creating this blue-collar work ethic; get up in the morning, just work and then be a kid and go off to college."

When all is said and done, the Duke staff will leave room at the end of the fall to focus on specific needs for this year's edition of the Blue Devils. They'll always shoot, lift and run, but the last two weeks of fall practice are usually spent tailored to what Danowski and the assistants think the roster needs most.

So far, Duke hasn't even taken the field outside of its skills sessions, so targeted needs remain to be seen, but creating midfield depth would seem a prime candidate.

There are three returnees from last year's group of six midfielders: senior Christian Walsh and sophomores Deemer Class and Myles Jones. Walsh switched to midfield last year to allow heralded freshman Case Matheis playing time on attack and Class and Jones, as freshmen, combined for 28 goals. The midfield trio had 44 goals and 30 assists. But a second midfield line needs to be developed. "We're really clueless right now," Danowski said about how that will shape up.

But that might be the only part of the roster with any uncertainty.

Three starting attack, including 57-goal, 85-point scorer Jordan Wolf, is back, as are two starters on close defense, the team's top two poles, lightning-quick defensive midfielder Will Haus and starting goalie Kyle Turri.

And so is NCAA tournament most outstanding player Brendan Fowler, who set Division I records for most faceoffs won (339) and taken (526) in a season.

With them, along with three stud senior midfielders in David Lawson, Jake Tripucka and Josh Offit (Lawson and Tripucka proved effective this summer as MLL rookies), it all came together in the form of Duke's second national championship in four years. Even after a 2-4 start to the season.

Slow starts and great finishes have become trademarks of Danowski's Duke teams. The foundations for seven straight final four appearances have been built in September and October, and January and February in many instances. Overall, Danowski's seven Duke teams have gone 14-9 in February and 19-5 in the post-season.

"The hope is that when the seniors leave your program in May, they're playing the best lacrosse of their careers," Danowski said. "That starts in the weight room. They should be lifting the highest numbers that they've every lifted. It means that you're getting better."

And on the field, "We slowly put in the fundamentals that we're going to be referring to all year. We can always reference back and say, 'Hey, remember back in September the first week when we went over so and so?' We create these reference points."

But there's not much reflecting on the past this time of year, even for the team that hoisted the NCAA championship trophy last May with a win over Syracuse in the final in Philadelphia.

"We don't even really talk about last year," Danowski said. "The first meeting you mention it and you say it's over, and that's it. Now this is a new year, new team, and new guys. You lost all your seniors and you gained all the freshmen, so 25 percent of the team is new. You approach it like you would any other season.

"The freshmen don't know anything about it," he said. "The juniors are now seniors and are looking around and starting to figure out that they're the oldest guys in the weight room, the oldest guys running. You have all these small transitions that everyone is getting used to."

"We try to take it a day at a time," Duke faceoff guy Brendan Fowler said. "We were so successful last year because ... we just enjoyed it."

Fowler, now one of the older guys, is making sure to take in the experience. After three years playing on Duke's football team, he's focused only on lacrosse, and his younger brother, Danny, is now on campus too as a freshman goalie with the Blue Devils. (Brendan had the opportunity to recieve a partial scholarship from the lacrosse program this year and wasn't receiving money from football, so he made the decision to play lacrosse in the fall.)

"We try to take it a day at a time," Fowler said. "We were so successful last year because we didn't really rush toward the end. We just enjoyed it. Now for the fall, it's everyday come in and work out as hard as you can, run as hard as you can. It's my last shot at it, so I definitely don't want to fast-forward through it. As much as I can't wait to start playing again, you still want to enjoy the journey of it and not get caught up in too much other stuff."

Focus on the small things and the big things will take care of themselves is one way of putting it. The small things really are the big things is another school of thought. In any case, the only people talking about Duke's big thing last year — the national championship — are the people that ask about it.

Carroll Seeks Return, Waits for NCAA Decision

Casey Carroll, who last played in a game for Duke in 2007, is seeking a return to the field this season. He had hoped to play all of last season after being granted a fifth year of eligibility; the combination of a season-ending knee injury in Duke's scandal-shortened 2006 campaign and an NCAA exemption that allows those with time spent in the armed services to play beyond the traditional five-year calendar for student-athletes.

After earning first-team All-American honors as a Blue Devils defenseman in 2007, Carroll served five years as an Army Ranger. He returned to Durham last year to pursue a master's degree from Duke's Fuqua School of Business. He was set on playing lacrosse too, likely as a starter, but tore the ACL in his left knee in a non-contact drill in January.

"It's amazing," Danowski said. "He's jumped out of helicopters. He's on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and he hurts his knee in a non-contact injury."

Now Carroll awaits another NCAA decision. The ACC has already cleared Carroll to play this season, Danowski said. "We've learned that the NCAA certainly travels at its own pace," he said.

Also complicating matters is that in addition to being in second year as an MBA student, Carroll's wife is pregnant with their second child, and he worked a time-consuming internship in Charlotte this summer that left little time to rehab his injured knee.

"He needs to strengthen his knee," Danowski said.

Getting the Band Back Together

An underreported feature of Duke's 2013 championship season is that the Blue Devils won the title with two first-year assistant coaches: Matt Danowski and volunteer assistant Cinosky, along with veteran assistant Caputo, who started his coaching career as a volunteer assistant for John Danowski at Hofstra in 2004.

"That was a little bit of a transition for all of us," John Danowski said. "We're all back together again and that's really helpful. They feel a little bit more relaxed and they know what's expected of them, and we're looking to help them grow into the positions."

Danowski said this is the first time during his Duke tenure that he's had the same volunteer assistant two consecutive seasons. Cinosky, the former Maryland All-American, is also teammates with Matt Danowski with MLL's Charlotte Hounds. John Galloway, the volunteer assistant before Cinosky, is now a full-time assistant at Providence under Chris Gabrielli, the Duke defensive coordinator who left after the 2012 season.

More on the Furman Meeting

Duke's rare fall play day participation at Furman is still coming together. Danowski said it will be a practice day and the Blue Devils may not bring their entire roster, perhaps keeping its seniors behind in Durham.

"Coach Meade is starting a new program," Danowski said. "We told him we'd come down there and kind of help kick off Furman Lacrosse. Normally we don't do anything in the fall, but his calendar synced up with our calendar at the end of [October]. We've been friends for years, he asked me and I said, 'Yeah.' This year we'll do it."

Odds and Ends

Danowski said Jordan Wolf did not pull out of Team USA tryouts with injury, as it was announced in August, but simply elected not to attend. "His priorities were with Duke and being here with the team," he said. Wolf was one of only eight current collegians invited to try out. Danowski also said Wolf is "pound-for-pound one of strongest kids on the team."... Who puts up the most weight? Defenseman Chris Coady, who played on the Duke football team last year and played in eight games last lacrosse season... Duke enters the fall with no players with major injuries, aside from Carroll's situation. Defenseman Rowland Pettit, a freshman last year, had shoulder surgery but is ahead of schedule on recovery. He's been cleared to be on the field, although is still limited to lower-body weight training.

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