February 19, 2014

Duke's Strong Start Flies Under Radar on Campus

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Duke earned its first win over a top-five opponent in February under coach John Danowski with a 14-10 victory over visiting Denver on Saturday. (Peyton Williams).

In the world of sports on the Duke University campus, the exploits of the most successful men's lacrosse program in America can spark a reaction that ranks somewhere between a yawn and a raised eyebrow. And that is oh so fine with eighth-year men's lacrosse coach John Danowski.

Last weekend provided a perfect illustration of lacrosse's niche presence on the entertainment dial, particularly in mid-winter and especially in Durham. On Saturday, top-ranked Duke served notice against visiting, No. 4 Denver that it will defend its second NCAA Division I title with vigor. Danowski sent struggling junior goalie Kyle Turri to the bench following the first quarter, and Duke showed its teeth and silenced the Pioneers with a 14-10 victory.

With a squad that could be carried equally by sturdy seniors and maybe the most able group of sophomores in the game, the Blue Devils (2-0) earned their first win over a top-five opponent in February under Danowski. This doesn't look like the Duke that has made a habit of taking several early-season lumps, before revving up and passing its competition in April and May.

Not that many on the Durham campus noticed. After Duke took care of Denver before 518 chilled spectators at the team's practice turf field — a winter storm forced the game to be moved from Koskinen Stadium — the main act performed over in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Before a national television audience and another delirious sellout crowd, coach Mike Krzyzewski's basketball team hung on for a two-point victory against Maryland in the last ACC meeting between the two old rivals.

And the cult figure, known as the Duke men's lacrosse team, just moved on in its perpetual state of anonymity.

"We live in a lacrosse vacuum here. There wasn't one sentence written about our [Denver] game in the school paper," said Danowski, without a tinge of resentment in his voice. "There really is no outside interest in our program here during basketball season."

You couldn't design a more comfortable bubble than the one Danowski and the Blue Devils embrace.

The national scandal fueled by trumped-up rape charges that killed the 2006 season, cost coach Mike Pressler his job and ultimately brought Danowski from Hofstra is but a dot in the rearview mirror. Since Danowski put the program in his hands, all the Blue Devils have done is win often and win big, while doing it with a sense of peaceful isolation.

Danowski's recruiting ability and skill at managing a season are pretty much closed to questioning at this point. That's the deal when your team thumbs its nose at parity by going to the NCAA tournament semifinals seven years in a row and wins it all twice in a four-season span. That's the deal when the head coach owns an overall record of 113-29 since coming to Duke.

It's only February. So much will happen in the next two months with a daunting schedule lying in wait for the Blue Devils, who are so accustomed to expecting everybody's best haymaker.

But this team, with terrific senior anchors such as attackmen Jordan Wolf and Josh Dionne, long-stick midfielder Luke Duprey and faceoff monster Brendan Fowler and precocious sophomores such as attackmen Case Matheis, midfielders Deemer Class and Myles Jones and backup goalie Luke Aaron, has the makings of something special.

One thing is certain. The Blue Devils, who clearly don't mind being relatively ignored in their own Durham world, will not let the outside world get in their way. That is no small feat in the age of social media. Danowski, a fan of Twitter, removes the app from his phone during the season, while urging his players to avoid all types of message boards as much as possible.

"We tell our guys not to read any of that stuff, just be men about it," Danowski said. "We don't want them listening to their parents or anyone else outside when it involves what happens in here."

The focus appears to be intact. Danowski said the team ended the fall semester with a combined, 3.42 grade point average, with 70 percent of the roster registering at least a 3.0. Many players hit all-time highs in strength and conditioning measurements.

"We keep it simple. We tell our guys to show up, give great effort, pay attention to details and be yourself," Danowski said. "It's fun to watch them adapt."

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