CHAPEL HILL—Unlike most other sports that alternate possession after each score, in men’s lacrosse, the teams must fight for the ball in a unique play known as a faceoff.
With the ball between them, two opposing players bend down with sticks on the ground and fight for position. Oftentimes, the battle can resemble a wrestling match, with faceoff specialists inside the circle grinding for several moments before gaining the upper hand.
Their ultimate objective is to send the ball in a direction where either they or their wings can initiate a new offensive possession. If a team can consistently win the draw, it can suck the life out of an opponent—and that's exactly what happened at Fetzer Field Sunday night.
In Duke’s rivalry matchup against North Carolina, the Blue Devils found themselves down 6-1 early in the second period—matching their largest deficit of the season. However, senior Kyle Rowe’s dominance at the faceoff X catalyzed an inspiring rally that sent Duke on an 11-2 run to close out the game.
Despite a slow start, the Vienna, Va., native won 14 of the game's last 15 draws, time and time again setting up the Blue Devil offense with prime scoring opportunities and forcing North Carolina's offense to watch helplessly as its lead evaporated.
“Kyle Rowe was a huge part of that not giving them the ball," said junior attackman Justin Guterding, who had all three of his goals in the fourth quarter and added three assists. "They had the ball for 75 seconds in the 4th quarter—that’s how you win games.”
As Rowe won faceoff after faceoff, he put the ball in the sticks of the potent Duke offense, which ranks 10th in the country in scoring at 12.6 goals per game. And the 75-second figure Guterding referenced was even more impressive than it sounds.
The reigning national champions possessed the ball for the last 45 seconds of the game following a Blue Devil shot-clock violation with the outcome already decided. The other 30 seconds of possession came after a Duke turnover at the start of the quarter, meaning that the Blue Devils essentially held the ball for about 13 straight minutes in the fourth quarter, setting up Guterding's fourth-quarter eruption.
With Rowe winning all six of his fourth-quarter faceoffs, Duke outshot North Carolina 26-9 after halftime and outscored its opponent 5-0 in the final period.
Even though the Tar Heels boast the 14th-best faceoff percentage in the country even after the loss led by veteran Stephen Kelly—who ranks 24th individually—Kelly lost his role in favor of Jack Rowlett midway through the fourth quarter.
However, nothing could stop Rowe, who was in one of the best grooves of his career.
“You know every time I thought it was a new faceoff, I forgot about the last ones," Rowe said. "I just had to get the ball back for the next one, get the offense the ball and let them do their thing and keep climbing away.”
It was no secret that the Blue Devils were struggling early on, especially with their footing in hostile territory. Their slow start in all phases of the game led to North Carolina scooping up 10 first-quarter ground balls, most of them off faceoffs with Rowe only able to win two-of-six.
“You know we've been talking all week about how slippery the turf is, but you know it's hard to practice for that," Rowe said. "On faceoffs, you know the initial draw part sometimes the footing can be a little different but not really. The biggest thing is the different kinds of grass make a difference on ground balls. On a field like this with the grass, you really got to get low with your hands and scoop through the ground ball."
And a week after Duke fell in overtime at then-No. 6 Syracuse in part because of its inability to corral the game-deciding ground ball that set up the Orange game-winner, Rowe and the Blue Devil wings made sure to stay steady Sunday evening.
As a team, Duke collected 14 ground balls in the second half, shutting out North Carolina 7-0 in the fourth quarter when it seemed like the Tar Heels' spirit had broken.
It was a dominant run reminiscent of the kind former All-American faceoff specialist Brendan Fowler used to spark in helping the Blue Devils to the 2013 and 2014 NCAA championships, and Rowe's teammates were just as important to that effort as he was.
“[Thomas] Zenker was pretty good on the wing and [Terry] Lindsay, Ethan Powley, Greg Pelton—everyone had at least one ground ball on the wing," Duke head coach John Danowski said. "It is never just our guy against their guy, but Kyle did a nice job of getting the ball out so our wings could make plays.”
After his clutch performance, Rowe now finds himself ranked 19th in the country in faceoff win percentage at 58.2. And as the Vienna, Va., native continues climbing the NCAA's all-time list—he is currently ninth in draws controlled—his ability to continue delivering in the biggest moments could determine how far the Blue Devils advance this year.