Just a few weeks ago, Inside Lacrosse Magazine projected Duke outside of the NCAA tournament field. Since then, the Blue Devils have ripped off three straight ACC wins to go flying to the top of the polls.
And a strong performance on the road would have head coach John Danowski’s team heading into the postseason as one of the hottest squads in America.
Playing its best lacrosse of the season, No. 4 Duke travels to Milwaukee to take on Marquette Saturday at 1 p.m. at Valley Fields. Saturday’s meeting between the two teams marks the fifth time the Blue Devils have clashed with the Golden Eagles, with Duke owning a 4-0 edge in the series history and most recently shutting Marquette down last season in a 16-1 victory at Koskinen Stadium.
However, this season’s Golden Eagles have proven to be a tougher out, recently battling then-No. 7 Notre Dame for 59 minutes before a last-second Fighting Irish goal sunk any hopes of a comeback.
“There are two things you have to look at with Marquette,” Danowski said. “They beat Air Force, who beat us, and they lost to Notre Dame by a goal at Notre Dame. We have to be mindful of the fact that they are extremely capable…. There’ll be 3,000 people at the game, and those people will be fired up and excited to see Marquette win.”
The Blue Devils (10-3) have won eight of their last nine games thanks to improvements in every phase of the game. The offensive chemistry was in doubt at the beginning of the season, but the production from both the midfield and attack has erased any uncertainty.
Duke boasts two potential Tewaaraton Award finalists in junior Justin Guterding and senior Jack Bruckner, who have racked up a combined 121 points. Each star netted six goals last weekend against then-No. 20 Virginia to further boost their profile. Guterding and Bruckner, the two established offensive commodities for the Blue Devils, have propelled the offense to new heights as younger players have begun to emerge.
Sophomore midfielders John Prendergast and Sean Lowrie have seen the field more often after quiet freshman campaigns, combining for 26 points to take some of the scoring load off Duke’s stars. Freshmen Reilly Walsh, Kevin Quigley and Joey Manown now have 42 goals combined since joining the starting lineup at the beginning of the season and have taken advantage when defenses focus on Guterding and Bruckner.
The Blue Devils have showcased their impressive depth since the beginning of their ACC slate, routinely playing two or even three midfield lines a game. This marks a stark contrast from last season, when the All-American lineup of Myles Jones, Deemer Class and Chad Cohan rarely left the field. Against the Cavaliers last week, Duke also managed to get goals from Matthew Giampetroni, CJ Carpenter, Mitch Russell and Sean Cerrone, illustrating Danowski’s ability to push the right buttons with his bench late in the year.
“I can say this easily. This is the most complete team we’ve had since I’ve been here in 11 years,” Danowski said. “We’ve got some guys who are not playing who are very close to playing. It is an extremely complete team in terms of balance. Offensively, we ran three midfield [lines] last week. Defensively, there’s no star. It’s just a lot of good players that make for a good group. The goalie benefits from great defense, the face-off man benefits from great wing play…. This is a pretty selfless group.”
Duke’s defense has also been elite, possibly even better than its peaking offense.
The Blue Devils rank 11th in scoring defense despite having faced three top-10 teams and high-powered offenses for much of the year. New additions Cerrone and freshmen JT Giles-Harris and Terry Lindsay have worked with veteran defenders like Tommy Zenker and Brian Dunne to lock down opponents, and the rapid rise of sophomore Cade Van Raaphorst has made the Duke defense more aggressive.
Van Raaphorst has routinely drawn the opposition’s best attackmen, facing up against Virginia’s Zed Williams, North Carolina’s Luke Goldstock and Notre Dame’s Ryder Garnsey.
However, for all the skill that Duke boasts on the defensive side of the ball, Marquette (6-5) may be even better. The Golden Eagles have allowed just 90 goals through 11 games to rank 10th in the country in scoring defense, a mark that has kept the team competitive as its scoring offense sits just 45th in the nation, only netting 9.8 goals per game.
The home team could have another potential advantage as well since junior faceoff specialist Zachary Melillo comes into his matchup with Blue Devil senior Kyle Rowe winning more than 57 percent of his draws. Melillo could neutralize one of Duke’s strengths, as Rowe has been crucial in getting the Blue Devils extra possessions.
Stealing possessions from Duke from faceoffs, combined with strong defensive play and home-field advantage could be the recipe for Marquette’s biggest win in just the team’s fifth year boasting a Division I men’s lacrosse program.
“Offensively, we need to once again have great spacing, be fundamentally sound and execute,” Danowski said. “You can’t think, you can’t stop, you can’t hesitate. Defensively, one of the reasons they don’t give up many goals is because they have long offensive possessions. They stay on the dodge…. We’re going to have to be really disciplined on the ball and be prepared to help from the correct spots on the field.”
Correction: This story incorrectly noted that Duke is playing its regular-season finale. The Blue Devils will face Boston University after the ACC tournament. The Chronicle regrets the error.