Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski has been down this road before, but not with so many bumps.
When his Blue Devils won the national championship in 2010, the Atlantic Coast Conference was the toughest in the country even though it was just a four-team league with Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
This year, the conference will be tougher with the additions of Notre Dame and Syracuse. Add Denver and Loyola to the schedule, and it makes it even harder for the Blue Devils to defend their championship of a year ago. Danowski has won two national titles in his seven years at the school.
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"Every team on our schedule is good," Danowski said. "Lacrosse has changed to where everybody's got talent, everybody's well-coached, everybody's got a ton of film and videos and coaches working hard during the week breaking it down and trying to take away what you do best.
"Whether it's Jacksonville, Denver, Penn, Stony Brook, Maryland, every week, you're facing a dynamite opponent, and if you don't play well, you're probably not going to like the results."
So, there is a hush around the team when talking about repeating as national champions. If this was Johns Hopkins it might be a little different because of the emphasis of lacrosse at that school.
But at Duke, lacrosse is just another sport. The football team had 10 victories this season, won the ACC Coastal Division and played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Of course, the basketball program is one of the best in the country every year and coach Mike Krzyzewski is king of the campus.
So, it's not like the lacrosse team dominates the front of the sports pages in Durham, N.C.
"It keeps you humble," Danowski said .
Danowski is also smart enough to realize that the Blue Devils had a 25 percent turnover of the roster and last year's trio of 20-goal midfielders — David Lawson (36 goals, 17 assists), Jake Tripucka (23, 25) and Josh Offit (29, 19) — are gone.
It will be tough to replace that kind of leadership and firepower. More importantly, it's tough to develop the kind of chemistry Duke had last season. The Blue Devils were almost out of contention early in the season, losing four of their first six games.
"One thing I've learned is that you can't create the same dynamic," Danowski said. "Regardless if it's hoops, football, hockey or lacrosse, that dynamic from last season is gone. Sometimes we try to re-create that and wait for it to happen. We forget about the grind, the fundamentals and the hard work it took to get there the first time."
"While the program might be the defending national champion team, this team is not," he said. "This team has got nothing to do with last year's team. It's 25 percent new people. You replace your most experienced, older players — that 25 percent — with guys who have never played a college game. So the two teams are not even close in that respect, and I think that's the thing that I've learned. It's a brand-new year just like any other year. Whatever happened in the past, it's great, but it's the past."
Don't, however, start feeling sorry for the Blue Devils. Duke has been to the NCAA tournament semifinals seven straight years including three title game appearances. Even though the Blue Devils have to rebuild in the midfield, they still should have plenty of offensive weapons in senior attackmen Josh Dionne (45, 5), Jordan Wolf (57, 28) and sophomore attackmen Case Matheis (28, 24).
The Blue Devils defense returns almost intact with Henry Lobb, Chris Hipps, Will Haus and Luke Duprey. But goalie is an area of concern..
"It is about the team, it is about the guys playing well together," Danowski said. "This team could be very successful, but this team could also look very different from last year's team because of how guys play and what our parts are. And we really won't know what our parts are until you start playing games. Until you start finding some adversity or until you start playing under the bright lights, you don't know what you're working with."
But Danowski does know who he is playing against, and the Blue Devils have the bulls-eye on their backs.
"We could be 0-5 in the conference — easily. A realistic goal could be just getting to .500 in the conference and we probably would still get in the tournament," he said. "We've never beaten Notre Dame in the regular season. We've beaten Maryland just once during the regular season in the last three years. Carolina beat us in the ACC finals, we've lost to Virginia on the road, and Syracuse has all of that talent. There are such huge question marks all over the place — tough schedule, midfielders growing up, team dynamics, team chemistry. All those things start to get answered a little bit with each practice."
After thinking for a minute, Danowski says:
"All you want to be doing is playing your best lacrosse at the end of the season. If you accomplish that in May, regardless if you win or lose, that's all you can ask."