By: Justin Lafleur
The Duke men’s lacrosse team has made a habit of getting off to slow starts before finishing with a bang. Whether it’s in a season or a game itself, the Blue Devils play their best lacrosse towards the end – when it matters most – and they’ve shown that it can be a formula for success.
Duke began the season 2-4, dropping four games to strong opponents (Denver, Notre Dame, Penn and Maryland), but some by fairly lopsided finals. At the time, people questioned if the Blue Devils’ Final Four streak would end at six seasons, but Duke responded by winning 13 of its final 14 games, with only a one-goal loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.
In the NCAA Tournament, Duke trailed Loyola 7-3 before needing a goal with 1:05 left in regulation to force overtime. The Blue Devils then trailed Notre Dame 11-9 in the fourth quarter before scoring the game’s final three goals. Cornell got off to a hot start in Saturday’s Semifinals, leading 5-2 before Duke went on a 12-1 run. The Blue Devils went on an identical 12-1 run in Monday’s Championship Game to help erase a 5-0 deficit against Syracuse and cruise to a 16-10 victory.
The Blue Devils have been the team that won’t go away, and they’ve turned that into a dynasty. They own the nation’s longest Final Four streak (seven) while capturing two championships in the last four years.
When looking at this season, there were many reasons for the turnaround. One was the play of sophomore goalie Kyle Turri, who finished the season with a 14-1 record after taking over for Dan Wigrizer.
“Kyle is a winner,” said Duke head coach John Danowski. “He makes plays, intercepts passes, picks up ground balls, has great touch in the clearing game and does more than just stop the ball. One of the toughest things to do in college athletics now is be a goalie. I’m not sure why anybody would want to be a goalie, and I’m sure most parents would agree with me, to put their son in the goal. But he is just a winner and got better as the weekend went on.”
Was Turri the reason for Duke’s turnaround? Possibly, but more likely, it’s a collective team effort and overall culture in Durham, North Carolina. Every game is important, but some more than others. Most important is developing as a unit to be playing well in April and May.
If the Blue Devils began the season 3-3 or 4-2, they would have likely been seeded higher than seven in the NCAA Tournament But they proved that seed doesn’t make a significant difference – as recent history shows. Get to the dance and anything can happen. Duke became the second #7 seed in the last three years to win the National Championship (also Virginia in 2011). Over that stretch, there have been two #1 seeds, two #7 seeds and two unseeded teams who advanced to the National Title Game. Getting a high seed helps, but certainly isn’t an end-all-be-all.
Duke has made seven straight Final Fours. Over the last five years, the team’s best start was 2-2 (in 2009 and 2011). In fact, during the Blue Devils’ two national championship seasons, they held a sub .500 record after five games, beginning 2-3 in 2010 and 2-4 this season.
“The wonderful thing about coaching is that every season is different,” said Danowski. “No two seasons are the same. No group of young men is the same.”
“We replaced two coaches, Chris Gabrielli and John Galloway, who both left and went to Providence. Chris is the head coach, so we have a new coaching staff and new freshmen. Every year is this magical journey with bumps and adversity along the way. Some teams handle it and rise above it and some don’t, but the hope is that everybody learns from it. It’s a great way to make a living.”
“We demand a lot of our players all year-round,” Danowski continued. “But I’ve been here for seven years. Nobody has ever quit. Nobody quits the team. Nobody transfers. One hundred percent of the guys graduate. They just buy into what’s being taught.”