Lacrosse team ready for season ahead

For the third straight year, Duke opens its season with the expectation of competing in the Final Four on Memorial Day Weekend.

Dreaming of Duke's first national title is something the Blue Devils have done since falling one goal short of the title to Johns Hopkins in 2005 and holding the No. 2 ranking in 2006 before their season was cut short after eight games.

The same expectations are still there for Duke, ranked sixth in the Inside Lacrosse Men's Division I Media Poll. But this year, the specter of the program's first championship holds an entirely new significance.

Once President Richard Brodhead reinstated the program last June, the Blue Devils turned their attention to the 2007 season. For some, winning a title became about more than lacrosse. It became, at first, the opportunity to make a statement.

"We have one goal next year, one goal only, and that's to win a national championship," senior Tony McDevitt said in July. "If there's one thing that could maybe bring us back as far as people respecting us-bringing Duke's name, Duke lacrosse back to where it was, stepping in that direction-it would be to win next year and to get us in the public eye and to show how much we've worked."

Head coach John Danowski has been wary of that mentality, and he has worked throughout the fall and the preseason to keep his players' minds focused on the immediate tasks at hand: fighting for faceoffs, winning quarters and above all, competing to win each game.

"As a coach, that's the fear-the fear is that that's the only goal," Danowski said of focusing on the title. "You can't put the cart before the horse, and the fear is that that could happen.... Who knows what would have happened over the course of the whole year had [the 2006 season] been allowed to play out. But this is a different team, different circumstances."

On the eve of a season that promises to be anything but routine, nobody knows quite what to expect from the Blue Devils, who have not played an official game since an 11-7 loss to Cornell last March 21.

"It would be one thing if it was just one regular season to another," senior Casey Carroll said. "But with a whole new system and with everything going on, without ever playing a game, there's really no way to judge how good or bad we could be."

The Blue Devils have lost of several of their biggest stars, most notably former captains Matt Zash, Dan Flannery and Bret Thompson, all of whom saw their eligibility disappear when the 2006 season was cancelled. The departure of midfielders Zash, Flannery and Kyle Dowd leaves senior Peter Lamade as the only Blue Devil with significant time at the position.

Danowski said he does not expect any one player in particular to fill the void left at midfield, but a committee of players will take to the task of replacing Zash, a four year starter and Duke's 2004 and 2005 Most Valuable Player.

"I'm very high on our midfield group, and I think they're very athletic," Danowski said. "But great players and big games, those are things that are tough to replace."

As the Blue Devils look to adapt to this year's personnel, Carroll and co-captain Matt Danowski expect Duke's offense to become more of a free-flowing transition game rather than one that relies on set plays. Duke should not have too much trouble adjusting, as Danowski and junior Zack Greer-both preseason first-team All-Americans-anchor an attack that will be among the nation's best.

Even so, with the media hype surrounding the team's return to the field for the first time in 10 months, no one can tell how the Blue Devils will deal with the emotions and the distractions when Duke takes the field Saturday against Dartmouth at 2 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium. The Blue Devils also face up-and-coming No. 12 Denver Sunday at 3 p.m.

"I can't imagine what it's going to be like," Carroll said. "It's just pure excitement."


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