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Without leading seniors, Duke men's lacrosse in unusual position

Duke men's lacrosse coach John Danowski on the sideline in the 2010 national championship.
Duke men's lacrosse coach John Danowski on the sideline in the 2010 national championship. (Gene Sweeney Jr / Baltimore Sun)

Duke's famed streak of eight consecutive appearances in the final four of men's Division I lacrosse could be coming to an end soon.

In fact, the more pressing issue for the No. 7 Blue Devils (7-4) is getting into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. If Duke beats No. 6 Virginia (8-3) this weekend, the Blue Devils go to the tournament. If not, they play Penn in a consolation game.

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Is this any way to treat the two-time defending national champion?

"This year is very unique," said Duke coach John Danowski. "This is a young group, much younger than years past when we've had seniors who had played, who had been through some ups and downs here. Now, we're playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores."

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No. 1 Notre Dame defeated Duke, 15-10, Saturday, the third straight loss for the Blue Devils, who also lost to then-No. 1 Syracuse and No. 4 North Carolina during the slide.

Whenever Duke lost games in the past, the Blue Devils would then go on some spectacular winning streak at the end of the season. A year ago, Duke was 4-2 in its first six games, but won 13 of its last 14 on the way to the school's third national championship in five years.

In 2013, the Blue Devils lost four of their first six, but finished 16-5 including a 16-10 win against Syracuse in the national championship game. A Duke winning streak at the end of the season was certain, like death and taxes.

It might not be that way anymore.

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"Each year, especially in this conference, you have key players who are seniors, and if you look at the top teams like Syracuse, Notre Dame or North Carolina, they have those seniors in place," Danowski said. "We've had that, but don't have that luxury this season."

Unlike Division I basketball and in some cases football, lacrosse players don't leave after a year or acquire hardship status to gain entry into a professional league draft. For years, North Carolina's lacrosse team never seemed to have the proper leadership to go deep into the NCAA tournament, but this year they have senior attackmen Jimmy Bitter (29 goals, 32 assists) and Joey Sankey (24, 30).

Notre Dame has attackman Conor Doyle (Gilman, 14, 11) and midfielder-faceoff specialist Nick Ossello (11, 4) and Syracuse has attackman Kevin Rice (19, 25) and midfielder Nicky Galasso (19, 5), all seniors.

Duke had attackmen Jordan Wolf, Christian Walsh, Josh Dionne, midfielder Casey Carroll and defenseman Chris Hipps. They last played in 2014 with senior Brendan Fowler, who masked a lot of defensive problems because he was one of the country's most dominant faceoff specialists.

The Blue Devils outscored opponents because they controlled the pace of the game.

They still average 14.45 goals a game this season, but allow 12.27. They play two goalies, which usually means neither has been consistent enough to be a full-time starter.

Also, Duke does have that target on its back. Every team wants to beat the national champs.

"Opposing goalies are making a lot of saves on us," Danowski said. "I think we took like 46 shots against Notre Dame. Maybe we're just not a good shooting team or maybe we just are who we are."

At the moment, they just aren't good enough. It is to be expected once in a while even at a program like Duke's. Nobody is going to feel sorry for the Blue Devils. Before this season, Danowski compiled a 128-32 record in eight years at Duke. The Blue Devils won have won seven ACC regular season championships and four ACC tournament titles. They've played in four title games and won three.

So one "off" season, which would be branded successful for most programs, can't be that bad.

"Hey, that's why we're here, to keep working," Danowski said.

In the past, everyone in college lacrosse feared those words late in the season. They don't seem to have the same effect in 2015.

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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