John Danowski coaches a Duke men's lacrosse program that captured last year's national championship, is 4-0, and is the top-ranked team in the country. None of that prevented him from voting for Maryland — fresh off a dismantling of 2013 runner-up Syracuse on Saturday — as his No. 1 team.
"I just think they're playing great, and they've been terrific," said Danowski, who participates in the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association's coaches poll.
The Terps' 16-8 victory over the Orange on the road is the most significant outcome in the first month of the 2014 season. And as Maryland (3-0) prepares for the Blue Devils (4-0) for the final showdown between the teams as Atlantic Coast Conference rivals at noon on Saturday at Byrd Stadium, even the players understand the enormity of their performance nearly a week ago.
"It was pretty significant," senior goalkeeper Niko Amato said. "It was our first road test, it was a league game. There are only six teams in our league. So it was a nice early-season win against a top-ranked team, and that's always a positive thing for our program."
The Terps' success against Syracuse included some significant individual performances. Junior attackman Jay Carlson and freshman midfielder Connor Cannizzaro each recorded three goals and one assist, junior Charlie Raffa won 19-of-26 faceoffs, collected a game-high 11 ground balls, and scored twice, and Amato finished with a game-best 11 saves while limiting the Orange to 10 goals below their season average.
That result propelled Maryland to the No. 3 spot in The Sun's rankings and validated the players who bristled at a preseason poll that picked the team to finish last in the ACC.
"I think everyone was doubting us," senior midfielder Mike Chanenchuk said. "Syracuse obviously has a lot of talent. They were the runner-ups last year. We just went into the game knowing that we had to play our best lacrosse to win that game, and I think a lot of people were shocked. We weren't shocked, but it is nice to see a lot of young guys on offense do so well up there. It does kind of open up the eyes of a lot of people."
The task doesn't get easier with Duke coming to town. The Blue Devils, who rank 10th in Division I in scoring at 13.3 goals per game, are brimming with confidence after completing their first undefeated February since 2008.
The Terps may have the benefit of riding some momentum into Saturday's game, but coach John Tillman is aware of the tenuous nature of emotionally-charged wins.
"I think it's tricky," he said. "What we've talked about is just having a short memory, realizing that each week is a different week. You hope that the guys have gained some confidence, but you also can't hang your hat on last week because the next team coming in is ranked No. 1, they're really talented, they won the national championship. You have to move on, continue to get better, realize that this team has a lot of challenges.
"Yet team like ours with a lot of new parts, you hope that maybe some of that experience that the guys gained will help a little bit, that the parts working together might be getting better. But I think they realize how talented Duke is and what they've done so far this year. They're really good."
Tillman is relying on a group of veterans like Amato, Chanenchuk and senior long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt to set the tone in the locker room, and Chanenchuk said the leaders have emphasized avoiding the kind of letdown that dogged the program in 2012 when that squad followed victories over Duke and Johns Hopkins with losses to UMBC and Duke.
"That's the thing you want to stay away from," Chanenchuk said. "I think having Duke at home at Byrd this Saturday, I think everyone's going to be really amped for that. It's kind of tough to let down when you play Duke."
Tillman said the positive for Maryland is that the Blue Devils' success should be more than enough to capture the players' full attention.
"It's a home game at Byrd Stadium, it's the defending national champion, it's the No. 1 team in the country," he said. "I do think there was a lot of emotional investment, and that's the challenge for us this week. We need to replicate that. We need to come back and that needs to be who we are. I think all coaches would say that's the challenge, trying to get your team there."
Much like the game against Syracuse, the Terps are considered underdogs for the upcoming game against Duke. Raffa said that label doesn't stick with the players.
"They're still Duke, and we're still Maryland," he said. "Even if we were unranked and they were No. 1, there wouldn't be that big of a difference. … We're both ACC teams, so we know they're going to give it their best shot and we're going to give it their best shot. Hopefully, we'll come out on top when the clock strikes zero."