The Blue Devils have not competed since a disappointing loss to Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA tournament last May, ending their bid for a third straight NCAA title. That loss has been in the back of the team’s mind all offseason during six months of lifting and workouts, and on Friday night, Duke can start fresh with only one thing on its mind—a national championship.
Starved for action since last May, the Blue Devils are set to hit the turf at Koskinen Stadium Fridayat 7 p.m., welcoming High Point for their season opener before returning Sunday at 1 p.m. to face Lehigh. The No. 3 Blue Devils return their top five scorers and both goalkeepers from the team that went 12-6 a season ago.
The Panthers are only four years old as a Division I program and are fresh off their first NCAA tournament appearance last season. The Mountainhawks, led by former Blue Devil Kevin Cassese, are coming off a 21-4 win over New Jersey Institute of Technology in their season opener.
“At the beginning of the year, we are just curious,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “We have not competed since that first weekend in May. Number one, how hungry are we? Number two, how well do we play together? Also, how important is winning for the seniors in terms of that sense of urgency? I also want to know if we can make the right plays, not necessarily the best, but the right plays. We are all looking to see what the answers are.”
Friday’s game against High Point will provide many of the answers that Danowski is looking for.
Duke returns plenty of offensive firepower, including one of the most dangerous offensive midfield rotations in the nation. Led by senior midfielder and NCAA Preseason Player of the Year Myles Jones—who led Duke with a team-high 77 points—the midfield also includes first-team All-American Deemer Class, junior Jack Bruckner and senior Chad Cohan. Senior attackmen Case Matheis and sophomore Justin Guterding create mismatches, feeding the big men up top to capitalize on defensive movement.
READ: First overall pick Jones to join with Class, Matheis for expansion Atlanta Blaze
Jones is coming into his senior year as one of the more impressive Blue Devils in recent memory. Already named Lacrosse Magazine Preseason Player of the Year, Jones is Duke’s all-time midfield scorer and is on pace to become only the 11th Blue Devil in history to record 200 career points. Jones is also a favorite for the Tewaaraton Trophy, given to the nation’s most valuable player, and was chosen first overall in January's Major League Lacrosse draft. But Jones will command even more attention this year from opposing defenses and will have to shake the inevitable double-teams and long-pole defensive matchups.
“It’s hard to play with the same joy because heavy is the head that wears the crown,” Danowski said. “It is difficult when everybody is gunning for you and creating different defenses. It is also hard for us [as a team] to prepare. Maybe they will shut [Jones] off with a short stick, deny him with a pole or slide to him quickly. You have to be prepared for any possibility, and that is not fun for a great player because you just want to play your game”
Along with the powerful offense led by Jones and Guterding, Duke boasts a strong defense that has come a long way since the beginning of last season. After the national championship run in 2014, the Blue Devils lost all of their defensive starters to graduation, forcing Danowski and his staff to go back to the drawing board. After struggling early last season, the trio of Greg Pelton, Brian Dunne and Ethan Powley improved down the stretch as Duke advanced to the ACC championship game before losing to Syracuse. The defense allowed 11.6 goals per game, but with the return of goalkeeper Danny Fowler, the back end of the Blue Devils should not be a weakness this season.
“They seem more comfortable with the vocabulary, with each other and on the field,” Danowski said. “Ethan [Powley] was playing a new position last year, which is really hard. He is such a superior athlete, but he had never played down low. We were playing great teams, so there was no rest. The goalie issue was different—Danny had played football last fall and so we were unsettled in the goal. [Danny] is more confident this spring and that will help the defense. It helps them relax, knowing that if they do make a mistake, somebody is going to make a save.”
In addition to returning the long-pole starters from last season, Duke also boasts the nation’s number one defensive recruit, Cade von Raaphorst. The freshman class will have at least five players seeing game time this weekend, including Raaphorst, attackman C.J. Carpenter, defensive midfielder John Prendergast, midfielder Brad Smith, and defender Conor Alexander. The Blue Devils will need the help against a young and hungry High Point squad Friday night.
“We look at this game like we are the underdog,” Danowski said. “We jumped out to a three-goal lead last year after six minutes and the next 54 minutes it was an even game. [High Point] has their first class of seniors and they are hungry. They have had the whole offseason to prepare for us and they have a great coaching staff. We look at it as even game.”
High Point lost 10-8 in the first round of the tournament to Towson, but the Panthers boast two of the top scorers in the country in seniors Dan Lomas and Matt Thistle, both of whom were drafted in January. Lomas and Thistle combined for 74 goals and are both captains this season. Although inexperienced, the Panthers will be a good test for the Blue Devils in anticipation of Lehigh (1-0) on Sunday.
The Mountainhawks went 7-9 last year but beat NJIT earlier this week 21-9 for their opening win of the season. Freshman Tristan Rai paced the offense with five first-half goals and senior midfielder Alex Eaton had a big day with four goals and two assists.
“[Lehigh] is loaded,” Danowski said. “They always play really tough and take on the image of their coach. Kevin was a consummate Duke man—he played so hard and never came off the field. His players are empowered with that kind of spirit and they play for him.... Our opponents expect Duke, so let’s give them Duke, nothing less,” Danowski said. “High Point and Lehigh are coming hunting for Duke this weekend and we have to be prepared.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.