Duke lacrosse back to work after second consecutive NCAA title
Three-peat. Just the word brings forth images of Jordan’s Bulls, Kobe’s Lakers and the late-90’s Yankees. Fans love to focus on these teams and talk about their greatness. But to those actively trying to accomplish the feat, that’s all any outside talk is—talk.
Duke head coach John Danowski has reiterated throughout his teams’ back-to-back NCAA championship runs that all the talk of dynasties and three-peats is for those not focused on the day-to-day actions that lead to the three national titles in five years Danowski’s Blue Devils have captured. But it is hard to ignore the fact that after holding off Notre Dame to take this year’s championship, Duke is one more impressive season away from the rare three-peat.
But Duke will have to go for it without the player that has been its biggest offensive threat for the past four years, as attack Jordan Wolf concluded his collegiate career following his graduation and the end of the NCAA tournament.
“You miss everyone. But college is you get your four years, you get your opportunity, then it’s someone else’s turn," Danowski said. "And Jordan, it was really fun watching him grow up over the four years. Not only [did he] become a better player, but a better leader as a senior.”
The men behind the titles
Although Duke will certainly miss Wolf, its offense will be left in good hands. Much was made during the season of the success of then-sophomore midfielders Deemer Class and Myles Jones, and rightfully so, as the the duo combined for 75 goals and 128 points this past season. But what may have not been as reported was the coaching that facilitated that level of success.
Danowski’s staff has a spread of experience, ranging from Danowski’s 32 years on the job to his son and former Duke standout Matt Danowski’s two. Ben DeLuca is the newest to the cohort, joining the Blue Devils as a volunteer assistant coach this past February. Ron Caputo goes back the furthest with Danowski coaching-wise, as the two began working together in 2004 at Hofstra.
The staff may not have been together for the longest time, but the group gelled this season as it went on its second consecutive title run, largely because of the faith Danowski has in his assistants. With all three excelling at coaching the players in their specialized areas, it allows the laissez-faire approach to work, making Danowski's job less stressful and ultimately, more fun.
“The nice part about what we became this year as a staff is that we really work well together," Danowski said. "I give our assistants a lot of freedom to work with their guys. Coach Caputo and i have been together since Hofstra in 2004, with the exception of one year away where he stayed at Hofstra…. And then Matt is growing as a coach. And Ben DeLuca, to come in cold, not really knowing our system [was tough], but coaching is coaching. He was able to fit in seamlessly. We had fun together. We like each other, we have fun coaching. Then being at Duke, what’s not to like?”
Basking in the glory
“Next man up”, “focus on the next game” and “not concerned with last season” were all terms Danowski said on a weekly basis when asked about injuries or the connection between the back-to-back championship runs. It’s classic coaching rhetoric used throughout the profession and highlights the intense focus Danowski and his counterparts have while in the midst of hunting a title.
But underneath all the cliches and intense focus on the upcoming opponent, Danowski fully comprehends how special his Blue Devil teams are. All it took was a bus ride home to let it sink in.
“There is a euphoria that does exist,” he said. “The bus ride home is really special. It’s surreal, you’re pinching yourself because you know how difficult it is to accomplish this kind of feat. You look around, you see the smiles on the trainer, the equipment manager and the strength coach and you know how everybody feels.”
After a couple of weeks, Danowski says the euphoria begins to fade and the excitement of the upcoming season sets in and it’s back to square one.
“You do start thinking about next year and the challenges that next year brings," Danowski said. "Then, all of a sudden, there’s this new excitement that kind of takes place of this euphoria that says...’How far can this team go? How quickly can seniors develop and who are the seniors? Who are the freshman coming in and what roles are they going to play?’”
Keeping things in perspective
Prior to this year’s championship victory, a back-to-back title run had been accomplished just seven times. What’s more, the rare three-peat has only occurred twice, both by legendary programs and coaches. Henry Ciccarone’s John’s Hopkins squads dominated from 1978-1980 and Bill Tierney’s Princeton team held the title from 1996-1998. Roy Simmons Jr.’s Syracuse teams lost just one game between 1988-1990, but its 1990 trophy was vacated after the NCAA discovered it had used an ineligible player.
And despite the fact that his team is one title away from joining those renowned programs in the record books, Danowski will not let his team listen to the talk of his program being in the early stages of becoming a dynasty. Because even though the foundation is certainly there—three national titles in the past five years is tough to overlook—he maintains that his squad has to keep everything in perspective because of the sheer difficulty of the men’s lacrosse landscape each year.
“That’s just outside talk. It’s so difficult [to make the playoffs],” Danowski said. “Watch any sport. I mean, you marvel right now at the the San Antonio Spurs and their consistency. Tim Duncan, they’ve made the playoffs every year he’s been in the pros. That’s phenomenal. So you have that kind of mentality where you realize how difficult it is to repeat. How difficult it is to make the playoffs in sports.”
And just as the Spurs seem to find a gem in the NBA Draft each year, Danowski and his crew do their best each offseason to find the best fits for the Blue Devils. The incoming Class of 2014 features no shortage of high school success. James Riley, an incoming defender from Mendota Heights, Minn., was named the Minnesota Player of the Year, and midfielder David Gill and attack Mitchell Russell both claimed state championships in New Jersey and South Carolina, respectively.
“As a group, we’re very happy with the fact that every man had an outstanding senior year,” Danowski said. “We’re very curious to see how quickly they can pick things up. My suspicion is that we’re going to get a lot of run out of this class.”