PHILADELPHIA — — At the conclusion of Monday's NCAA tournament final between the Syracuse and Duke men's lacrosse teams, the winning squad will exult and exhale at the same time.
Both programs have taken long and arduous paths to this stage of the postseason, but one victory can provide the relief each is seeking.
The Blue Devils (15-5), who could capture their second national championship in four years, had perhaps the toughest road to the title game. The team opened the season with a 2-4 start — an inauspicious beginning capped by a 16-7 setback by Atlantic Coast Conference rival Maryland that was Duke's worst loss since a 17-7 drubbing to Syracuse in a NCAA tournament semifinal on May 23, 2009.
After that loss to the Terps, vying for a national crown was not remotely close to being considered by the Blue Devils.
"It was kind of far off," senior midfielder Jake Tripucka admitted during a news conference Sunday morning. "[A record of] 2-4 was definitely a big hole. But our seniors made sure that the rest of the guys knew that we were going to keep battling, keep fighting. We trusted our coaches to go back to what we do and just hope that the balance goes our way and hopefully we can come out of it. But to say that we expected to come back here, I couldn't say that."
Duke regrouped, emphasizing fundamentals and making some personnel changes that included bumping junior Christian Walsh (Boys' Latin) from starting attack to midfield, inserting freshman Case Matheis to join juniors Jordan Wolf and Josh Dionne as starters on attack, and tabbing sophomore Kyle Turri as the starting goalkeeper.
The Blue Devils responded positively, having won 13 of their past 14 games and featuring nine players with at least 10 goals and 20 points each. Coach John Danowski said that diversity in scoring is something he always tries to nurture.
"On a coach's wish list, I want a balanced team, a team that shares the ball and is unselfish," he said. "And every year, it doesn't always work out that way. Some years, you have four offensive midfielders. Some years, maybe it's only three or you have an inside guy or you have to kind of do with what you have. But this year, we've been blessed with six really athletic midfielders. … We've had tremendous balance from Day One."
Wolf credited the seniors with keeping the team focused on what it would take to put the season on the right track.
"Our senior class is unbelievable and they've been [that] all year," he said. "Our backs were really against the wall at that time, and they challenged all of us, our coaches challenged all of us. I think we just wanted to keep fighting, go out and battle every single day, keep working hard in practice and it eventually paid off."
The troubles for Syracuse (16-3) began before the season even began. Sophomore attackman Mike Daniello, a transfer from Johns Hopkins, sustained a skull fracture that sidelined him for the year, and junior attackman Nicky Galasso, a transfer from North Carolina, broke his foot and joined Daniello on the sideline.
The Orange opened with a 16-15 overtime loss to Albany and had the joy of a 9-8 overtime decision against Virginia on March 1 mitigated by the season-ending knee injury to sophomore Brandon Mullins that sapped the defense of a starting defenseman.
Despite the losses in personnel and later setbacks to Villanova and Hobart, coach John Desko said the players refused to adhere to preseason rankings that had the team outside of the top 10.
"I think we were rated anywhere between 14 and 17 to start the year off, and frankly, with the season we had a year ago and with the number of losses with some of the kids we had graduated, I could see polls and coaches voting us in that category," Desko said. "But the senior group took it personally, and they thought they were better than that. They worked really hard. The seniors and the captains have really been great for us on the field, off the field. So I'm proud of what they've been able to achieve so far."
Unlike Duke, the pressure to collect national titles is unrelenting at Syracuse, which has taken home an NCAA-leading 10 championships. The 1990 crown was vacated after the NCAA ruled that the squad had won using an ineligible player.
But it is a standard the players are fully aware of when they commit to playing for the Orange.
"It's expected, and I think that's why we've been here so many times," senior midfielder JoJo Marasco said. "We play so hard, and the talent just rises every time in close games, especially when it comes down to the last four teams. To finally make it here is huge as a senior, and we're really going to get after it [Monday] for Duke, and hopefully we can pull one out."
Junior attackman Derek Maltz said a senior class eager to avoid becoming the first group since 1999 to graduate without capturing a national title at least once stressed to younger classmates the need to put forth maximum effort in practice.
"The coaches and I know the seniors, they've done a tremendous job all year of really putting us into spots where we can be successful," Maltz said. "You've got to credit those guys, obviously to be here, to give these seniors a shot at a national title."