Come Monday, Duke's Casey Carroll hopes to play the game he loves while saluting the sacrifices he and others have made for their country. When better than Memorial Day for a former Army Ranger to end his college lacrosse career in the NCAA championship game?
"That [scenario] would be great for so many reasons — but, of course, it's one game at a time," said Carroll, 29, a starting defenseman for the top-seeded Blue Devils, who play No. 5 Denver in the Division I semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday at M&T; Bank Stadium. At 3:30, No. 7 Maryland plays No. 6 Notre Dame. The winners advance to Monday's title game at 1 p.m.
Perhaps no one in this year's Final Four would fit better on Monday's stage than Carroll. The Baldwin, N.Y., native graduated in 2007, a first-team All-American with one year of eligibility remaining. Instead, he joined the Army and served four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite volunteer combat unit, before returning to Duke for graduate school and one last fling at lacrosse. He prepared to come back for last season, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament pushed back his return to 2014.
Forget Carroll's age — he's 10 years older than some teammates — or the fact that he hadn't played in 2,447 days. He started Duke's opener, a 16-10 win over Jacksonville, and earned honors as Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Week.
He's not one to seek out attention.
"I'd just hoped to make the team better by being around," said Carroll, a starter in 17 of 18 games this season for Duke (15-3).
"He's extremely unique," coach John Danowski said of Carroll, who is married and the father of two. "He wants to be the same kid who left here in 2007, and it has been a joy to have him out there. The kids love him. They respect him so much for what he has done in his personal and professional life — as a soldier, a student, a dad and a husband."
To that end, Carroll is asked to address the team before big games, including last week's 19-11 quarterfinal win over Johns Hopkins.
"He shared stories about when he was a Ranger and being a team and working together," said midfielder Justin George (Gilman). "He got a little choked up, but what he said put the game in perspective. We really wanted to win after that."
Carroll "inspires us," said Christian Walsh, a senior attackman from Boys' Latin who has scored 20 goals. "He'll talk about his experiences overseas, his fallen brothers and the hard times he fought through — and how it all compares to sports. It's all about brotherhood and family.
"What a resource he's been. That a guy who could have played here for another year [in 2008] would go overseas to serve his country is almost unimaginable. But it speaks of his character. We may call him 'Old Man,' but everyone knows that if there's one guy who'll always have our backs on the field or off, it's Casey."
Carroll wasn't the first Duke lacrosse player to soldier up. The framed No. 10 jersey worn by Jimmy Regan hangs outside the team's locker room in honor of the midfielder-turned-Army Ranger who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007.
Though he never met Regan, Carroll was spurred by his death to follow suit. He'd thought about enlisting ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"I grew up in a patriotic household," he said. "Both of my brothers are New York City firefighters, as was my father [now retired]. All served their country."
When Regan, who grew up near him on Long Island, was killed, Carroll sought to take his place.
"[Regan] inspired so many people to chase their own dreams — and his," he said. "Maybe I didn't know him, but everyone on the Duke team looked up to Jimmy as a big brother — and who else do you want to emulate but your big brother?"
So Carroll signed on to be a Ranger, endured the brutal training regimen and joined Regan's old platoon. They raided terrorist camps, secured enemy strongholds and lived in harm's way.
"My platoon had injuries but, luckily, no one was killed," he said. "But I did have friends who made the ultimate sacrfice."
Carroll came home in one piece.
"Jimmy could have had something to do with that," said Kevin Cassese, a three-time All-American who played alongside Regan at Duke. "He was always looking out for his buddies and teammates. That selfless attitude was very prevalent with both men."
Cassese, now Lehigh's head coach, mentored Carroll for two years at Duke and said he wasn't surprised when the latter chose to suit up one last time.
"Casey's not one to leave anything unfinished," Cassese said. "This is just him doing what he's done all his life — putting closure on a task he was charged to attack."
Carroll would like to have bowed out this season without fanfare.
"The truth of the matter is that I'm probably the third-best defenseman out there," he said. "I could be a leader, but I already had my senior year and I don't want to encroach on those seniors who are leading the team now."
Carroll would like to have been "just one of the guys," but that's not possible given where's he been and what he's done.
"Casey would tell you that he's no more special than anyone, but when he talks, everyone listens. We hold him in a different light for what he has done for his country," Walsh said. "On the field, he's been awesome, with all that's going on in his life. The rest of us complain about having to write papers for class, and here's a guy balancing school, marriage, two kids and lacrosse."
Two weeks ago, Carroll received his Master of Business Administration degree. An NCAA title would follow nicely.
"I remember tracking Duke's 2010 championship on one of the Army's communal computers [in Afghanistan]," he said. "When they won, I jumped all around, though nobody else really knew what lacrosse was."
Should Duke reach Monday's final, Regan's parents will attend.
"For Casey to honor Jimmy the way he did makes me very proud," Mary Regan said. "Something inside both told them it was their duty to give back and to serve.
"We know what Casey has been through, and we only want good things to happen to him in life now."