The temperatures are rising, tents are up outside Cameron Indoor Stadium and the grass has been clipped at Koskinen Stadium. The arrival of February on campus marks the start of lacrosse season, and expectations are high once again for the Blue Devils. 

Preseason No. 1 Duke will face Air Force at Koskinen Saturday at 1 p.m. The Falcons have beaten Duke in Durham in the last two seasons, and Duke head coach John Danowski has made sure his team is recognizing that fact before the game. 

“We are scared out of our minds,” Danowski said. “It has been a tough week of practice. The weather has been really cold. The skills have not been sharp, and Air Force has beaten us the last two years.” 

Coming off their second Southern Conference title in a row and third NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons, the Falcons bring experience into Koskinen. But several players and coaches were suspended for alleged hazing and drug use last summer, and a cloud has hung over the program ever since. Although the 11 juniors and seniors have since been reinstated, the status of Air Force head coach Eric Seremet is still up in the air. 

Senior attackmen Chris Walsch and Nick Hruby lead the way for the Falcons. Walsch had two goals and Hruby had four tallies to help beat the Blue Devils 11-10 last February. Longtime goalkeeper Mitch Rose graduated last spring, so Duke will look to take advantage of Air Force’s inexperienced back line. 

Helping the Blue Devils get over the hump against the Falcons this weekend will be senior attackman Justin Guterding. A second-team All-American last spring, Guterding had 97 points off 56 goals and 41 assists. Guterding and junior midfielder Brad Smith will lead a young but talented Duke offensive attack. 

Defensively, Duke is led by junior Cade Van Raaphorst and sophomore JT Giles-Harris. Van Raaphorst was one of three Blue Devils selected to the preseason All-ACC team. The Phoenix native earned All-ACC recognition as a sophomore as well, becoming the first Duke close defensemen to earn all-conference honors since Tony McDevitt in 2008. Van Raaphorst finished the season with 40 ground balls and 19 caused turnovers, which led the team. 

“We are just figuring out how we are going to play, and now we have a scout look,” Van Raaphorst said. “Rather than getting ready to play ourselves, we are playing someone else with a different offense. [We are] just trying to get prepared for Air Force. We’ve been looking at a couple different options, but for the most part we play a pretty standard defense and we don’t care who comes and plays in our stadium, we just play.” 

Last spring, the Blue Devils welcomed a core of inexperienced offensive talent to Durham. Sophomores Joey Manown, Kevin Quigley, Reilly Walsh, Terry Lindsay and junior Sean Lowrie matured over the course of the season and bring explosive offensive depth for the Blue Devils. That group finished their freshman season with 101 combined points.

The Blue Devils bring back 81 percent of their total offensive output from last season, but early indications show that Duke still has a long way to go to show it can live up to the hype. Duke hosted Ohio State for a scrimmage last weekend and the Buckeyes were the faster and more explosive team, as Duke’s younger midfield and defense units were stretched by the more technically-sound Buckeyes. 

“We lost to Ohio State last weekend in a scrimmage pretty badly.” Danowski said. “With our first guys in, their first guys handled our first guys. Final score was 13-12 but everybody subbed liberally, and so we actually got handled pretty easily. So none of us here think we are No. 1. We have the mindset where we are No. 71. We just want to get better each day.” 

Helping the Blue Devils improve this season is 2010 national champion and Tewaaraton Award winner Ned Crotty. Crotty joined the Duke staff in September, as he continues to be a member of the MLL’s Rochester Rattlers and Team USA. 

“Ned has been great,” Danowski said. “I learn from Coach K—you bring the former players back as coaches and they just bring something different. They went to school at Duke, they played here. There is a certain pride they have in place. So the guys can’t get away with anything.” 

Guterding and senior goalkeeper Danny Fowler were also selected as preseason All-ACC players. Guterding is currently sixth on the all-time Duke scoring list, one point behind Crotty. 

“The collective senior leadership has been great as a group.” Danowski said. “Since the fall from day one, they have done a terrific job.”