It's only fitting that it turned out this way.
Heading into its third Final Four in the last four seasons, Duke must once again face Johns Hopkins for a chance at the program's first national title. The Blue Devils lost to the Blue Jays in each of their last two visits to the post-season's last weekend, both times in the championship game.
A five-game winning streak, including a blowout win over Maryland, helped Hopkins (10-5) eek into the field of 16. Now, after 10-4 victories over Hofstra and Navy in the first two rounds, the No. 5 Blue Jays—who have won more national titles than any other school—are back in the Final Four again.
Even though Johns Hopkins suffered a program-worst five-game losing streak in the middle of the season, and even though No. 1 Duke (18-1) handed the Blue Jays their worst lost in 20 years with a 17-6 thrashing back on April 5, they are still alive. And they're a different team, too.
"They almost didn't make the tournament, and here they are in the Final Four," midfielder Ned Crotty said. "Hopkins is a playoff team. They’re not the same team as they were earlier in the year."
Crotty was a major factor in Duke's big win over the Blue Jays earlier this year. Head coach John Danowski anticipated that Johns Hopkins would attempt to stymie stars Matt Danowski and Zack Greer by never sliding from them. Basically, the Blue Jays' tactic was to force the other Duke players to step up and get involved.
To counter this, John Danowski inverted his offense, placing Crotty, who usually initiates from in front of the net, behind the cage. With Danowski and Greer on the wings and their defenders reluctant to slide from them, it became like an isolation play for Crotty. A strong dodger from anywhere on the field, Crotty is particularly dangerous from behind the cage, able to beat his man, turn the corner and fling the ball past opposing goalies with incredible skill. It was no different against Johns Hopkins, as Crotty scored three unassisted goals in this manner before the first half was over.
Thanks to Crotty's success, the Blue Jays were forced to slide from Danowski and Greer more, which helped them register seven points each.
Another huge factor in that victory was Duke's strong riding game. The Blue Jays only cleared on 13 of their 22 chances, including a 2-for-8 third quarter in which the Blue Devils piled on six goals. This has been a key aspect of Duke's game all year long, forcing turnovers in the opponent's defensive end and scoring quick, easy goals with the defense out of position. Johns Hopkins has shown vast improvement in this area, though, clearing on 83 percent of their opportunities in its first two playoffs games.
When asked after Duke's 21-10 quarterfinal victory over Ohio State if he thought the Blue Jays would try a similar tactic or employ an entirely different one, Crotty said he had no idea. All he did know, he said, was that it was going to be a fun rematch.
Either way, the Blue Devils all echoed the same sentiment. It doesn't matter who's next, they're ready.
"It's just the next game," Zack Greer said. "It's the next team we've got to play. We've got to prepare for them, but it’s about doing our own thing. We gotta come out and play our game, we gotta play right, do the things we do best...it doesn’t matter who the opponent is."
--by Matthew Iles
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