Almost exactly one year ago, Duke walked off the West Campus turf fields on a snowy Tuesday afternoon looking lost.
Appearing distracted in their play, the Blue Devils had just experienced an uncharacteristic defensive breakdown, giving up five goals in the fourth quarter to be upset 11-7 by a Cornell team that Duke had soundly beaten in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
As fate would have it, the reason for the team's lack of focus would soon become the center of a national media firestorm.
When No. 5 Duke (5-1) and the No. 1 Big Red (4-0) square off in Koskinen Stadium at 7 p.m. tonight, it will be more than just a significant test against the nation's top team. It will also be a rematch of what ultimately proved to be the Blue Devils' last game of the 2006 season.
"It was tough for some guys to focus into the game [last year] when so much stuff was surrounding their life and eventually what happened," senior Matt Danowski said. "No excuses because we were outplayed last year, but it was definitely a distraction. Hopefully this year-nobody's talked about it too much-so not too many guys are thinking about it like that."
Still, a feeling of déjà vu might be felt by some as several players were forced to miss practice last week for questioning at the offices of the two special prosecutors, who North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper appointed after Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong asked to be recused Jan. 12.
"This thing just will not go away," Duke head coach John Danowski said. "We're living under the mantra of 'no excuses' and 'no whining' but that's only natural that [the questioning] would be a distraction for guys. 'I don't want to say the wrong thing, I want to do the right thing, I'm worried, I've never done something like this'-for somebody this age it's got to be a distraction."
Matt Danowski said the meetings have added outside stress to the affected players' lives, especially since those being questioned had to meet with the special prosecutors before flying out to California for a game against Loyola March 10. Nevertheless, Danowski felt that the legal proceedings have had little impact on the team's play on the field.
"It's something that we have to deal with-we can't whine about it, we can't moan about it," Danowski said. "We just have to do what we need to do for the case and then do what we need to do for lacrosse. It probably was a little bit of a distraction, but nobody's had to do anything this week so it'll be OK."
Distractions aside, tonight's matchup will pit the Blue Devils against a senior-laden Cornell team that John Danowski said is deserving of its No. 1 ranking.
The Big Red features a balanced attack, getting 37 points from both its attack and first and second midfield units, and has outscored its opponents 55-22. Seniors Eric Pittard and David Mitchell lead Cornell with 10 goals apiece, while midfielder John Glynn has registered a team-high eight assists.
Duke's tandem attack of Danowski and Zack Greer will also have to contend with an experienced keeper in senior Matt McMonagle, who recorded 10 saves against the Blue Devils last year and was named the Ivy League Player of the Week Monday.
"They play really good team defense," Matt Danowski said. "They slide and recover well and have a really good goalie. Offensively, they have a lot of slick players that do a lot of stuff off the ball. We need to play really disciplined and have our heads up, paying attention to detail if we want to get away with the win."
Sloppy play in the opening periods has been a problem for Duke in its last two games, as the team has found itself down 5-1 and 6-1 in the first half against Loyola and North Carolina, respectively. John Danowski said he felt his team has wanted to win so badly that it has been afraid to make mistakes and needs to play with a more relaxed attitude.
"We come out with such emotion, everyone wants to make a play to get the team going," Matt Danowski said. "That causes us to play a bit undisciplined-unforced turnovers, penalties, stuff like that-so I think we all need to take a collective deep breath before the game and just play a little bit more relaxed. That's what we do in the second half because we're already into the game."
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