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After tough start, John Danowski kept Duke on track toward national championship

When almost everyone else thought their season was over in early March, Duke's lacrosse players were not too concerned.

A losing record in March? Ho hum, no big deal.

A blowout loss to conference rival Maryland? No sweat, there were still two months left in the season.

What appeared to be disaster has become routine in Durham, N.C., after Duke completed its improbable run to the NCAA Division I championship Monday by defeating top-seeded Syracuse, 16-10.

Jordan Wolf had four goals and fellow attackmen Josh Offit and Josh Dionne each had three to lead Duke (16-5). But the story of the Blue Devils isn't about a high-scoring offense or their athletic midfielders, but the preaching of patience and trust by coach John Danowski.

It's been the same theme for the seven years Danowski has been at Duke, but it was never more evident this season after the Blue Devils got off to a 2-4 start.

"It's not foreign to us to be 2-4 early in the season," said Duke junior midfielder Christian Walsh (Boys' Latin), who had a goal and an assist. "We're built to play in May. We struggle early every season, but our goal is to [get to] May, play one game at a time and keep playing for another week. Well, there was only one more week left and we finished it off today."

The philosophy sounds corny, but it's vintage Danowski. The Blue Devils were near rock bottom Feb 22 when they lost to Penn, 14-9, and appeared to hit it March 2 when Maryland blew them out, 16-7.

Duke typically goes through some growing pains every year, but this time was different. They had two new assistant coaches in Matt Danowski (John's son and the former Duke All-American attackman) and Ron Caputo, and the wear and tear of the season was beginning to show on John Danowski's face.

The bags and stress lines under each eye were growing with each loss.

"Nobody envisions that," Danowski said of the 2-4 start. "It's about showing up every day to work and taking each day one day at a time, and I think when you're involved in athletics, you learn to live that way. It's Tuesdays in the weight room or film days or pre-game, night-before meetings. You just keep on working and keep on staying on task.

"Everything that we do is team-oriented. It's like having children. When they step out of line, you have to let them know, but we let them know why. And the guys in the end, when you win, they buy in. At 2-4, as a coach, you're scared stiff that they're not buying in, but the hope is that the lessons are learned."

But there were doubts, even from the younger Danowski.

"I started wondering if it was me — was I messing this thing up?" said Matt Danowski, the offensive coordinator. "But my father has always taught us to keep working, no matter what. We preached that if you trust us in practice that we will trust you on the field.

"We also knew that most of the teams we played early in the season, we were the first game on their schedule, so they had a month to prepare for us. We knew that if we stayed with it, got some ACC wins, they would be quality wins and we could get back into this thing."

There were some changes made, like moving Walsh from starting attack to midfield and replacing him with freshman Case Matheis. Instead of changing the offense, Matt Danowski spent more time working with his players on shooting, movement and improving basic IQ.

Six days after losing to Maryland, Duke upset Loyola, 9-8. Five days later, the Blue Devils stunned North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 11-8.

"It was just a matter of us getting our best six players on the field," Walsh said. "Here, we never have any doubt because we've been in tough spots before, but we have the systems in place and we believe we have the best coaches. Once we beat Loyola and UNC, we were back in business. We just had to keep plugging away."

Few coaches can make adjustments as well as John Danowski during the course of a season. He now has a 19-5 NCAA tournament record at Duke and is 24-5 in May. Duke finished off this season by winning 14 of its last 15 games.

The title game was Duke's season in a microcosm. The Blue Devils were down, 5-0, with 14 minutes and 18 seconds left in the half. Danowski didn't panic. He didn't scream at his players or yell at officials.

The Blue Devils stayed with the game plan, and worked a lot from the side of the goal finding cutters across the middle. They also got a lot of help from Brendan Fowler, who helped Duke win 21 of 30 faceoffs.

"This was a job for the staff and the support staff and the seniors. I would look back at that and say that sometimes I wonder if we demand too much from them in the fall," Danowski said. "They're in the weight room four days a week at 7 o'clock in the morning. They're running four days a week. And I'm always saying to the coaches, 'You know what? If I'm those guys, I'm not playing. I'm doing something else.'

"So we demand a lot of them all year round, but I've been here for seven years, and nobody's ever quit. Nobody's ever quit the team. Nobody transfers. One hundred percent of the guys graduate. They buy into what's being taught. So it starts early. … And your seniors have to buy into what you're trying to teach them."

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