A year after fielding one of the best teams college lacrosse has ever seen, Duke has already suffered its first loss of the season-and to unranked Harvard, no less.
But while students and fans might have been shocked by the early reality check, the Blue Devils (2-1) merely see it how it is: as a virtually harmless February loss-one that may even do them some good, too.
The No. 10 Blue Devils get their first chance to respond to the loss Saturday at 2:30 p.m. against No. 11 Maryland (2-1) in the Faceoff Classic at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
"We're not too freaked out about the loss," senior captain Ned Crotty said. "There's such a thing as-no one likes to lose-but there's such a thing as a good loss. And I think Harvard was one of those."
"Sometimes, listen, you have to be willing, as a coach, to lose in order to get better," head coach John Danowski said. "You don't gel in February."
This concept of gelling may be foreign to the Duke faithful, who were blessed by watching two of the most prolific attackmen in the sport's history in Matt Danowski and Zack Greer. Although the Blue Devils still have plenty of talent on their roster, the pieces have been shuffled and now the chemistry must be rediscovered.
Sophomore Zach Howell is a first-year starting attackmen. Gibbs Fogarty is back in action after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Max Quinzani, who finished second in the nation behind teammate Greer with 61 goals last year, is in his first year with a new unit, and even he is in a new role.
"What we don't have-our older guys are not experienced in their positions," Danowski said. "Four out of our top nine guys, it's the first time in their positions, really. And that's going to take time."
That list includes the team's leader, Crotty, a second team All-American midfielder from a year ago who has been working tirelessly to adjust to his new offensive position.
"I've come to grips. I'm an attackman now," Crotty said. "That part's not weird. I'm learning every day. Coach is telling me that I can do better. 'You're being a middie.. Stop thinking like that, start thinking like this.'"
The Blue Devils' offensive production is way down from their astronomical numbers from last year. In three games, they have averaged just more than half of their 16.7 goals per game in 2008. Danowski is quick to point out the cause of the drop doesn't lie completely on the offensive unit, though, as the team has also struggled with clearing and faceoffs that would generate more possessions and, potentially, more goals.
Following the disappointing loss to the Crimson, Duke has had some of its best practices all season this week in an effort to bounce back, Crotty said.
In the end, though, the matchup with Maryland figures to revolve around the Blue Devils and how long it will take them to reach their full potential. And in a game as fast-paced and exact as lacrosse, the difference will be when instinct takes over hesitation, when playing fluidly comes naturally.
"Last year, it was throw the ball, make the move and then think," Quinzani said. "This year, we're a little more tentative. For instance, me and Ned will lock eyes sometimes, and we'll have an understanding, but we don't necessarily have our cuts down yet, we don't have our footwork down yet. So, we're doing a lot more thinking as opposed to reacting."
But players are mindful of the reality of the situation, and confident their best play is right around the corner.
"I didn't expect to get the chemistry this soon," Quinzani said. "That takes time."
The season is still long, but Duke has very little time to improve on its last performance if it's going to avoid the program's first losing streak since 2004.
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