If the Blue Devils have learned anything during head coach John Danowski's tenure, it is not how you start the season that matters most, but how you end it.
And with the postseason lurking around the corner, Duke is peaking at just the right time.
After dominating their last two opponents of the regular season, the No. 14 Blue Devils will travel to Kennesaw, Ga., Friday for a 8:30 p.m. rematch against No. 4 Notre Dame in the ACC championship semifinals at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Although third-seeded Duke dropped its lone matchup with the second-seeded Fighting Irish earlier this season 8-6 in South Bend, Ind., the Blue Devils are poised to exact revenge against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament for the second consecutive year.
“Life is about learning from your mistakes and learning life’s lessons and a season gives you those things,” Danowski said. “Your team either gets better or it gets worse, and the hope is that each year your individuals learn from their mistakes and move forward [and] teams learn from their mistakes and move forward. Every team does it at its own pace.”
Slated as the third-best team in the nation in the preseason rankings, Duke (9-6, 2-2 in the ACC) struggled to remain consistent throughout much of the season. With home losses against Richmond and Air Force in March, the Blue Devils struggled to find an identity at the end of the season that could propel them to the NCAA tournament.
But with the right to compete for the program's fourth national title, Duke turned to its high-powered offense to right the ship.
In the last six quarters of the regular season, the Blue Devil offense—tied for second in the nation with 14.0 goals per game—turned on the jets. During that span of play against Virginia and Marquette, Duke outscored its opponents 25-4. Against the Golden Eagles, 10 Blue Devils found the back of the net, and 10 of their 16 goals were assisted.
“We just kept working,” senior midfielder Deemer Class—who was named an All-ACC performer Wednesday along with midfielder Myles Jones and attackman Justin Guterding—said. “We definitely started off well and hit some road bumps as always, but you just keep working hard, keep trying to develop chemistry, keep getting out there to shoot extra and then really emphasize playing as a unit, so really trying to move the ball, get those one-more passes to get better shots and not settling for hard-angle shots.”
As the offense picked up steam, the Duke defense found its identity on the other end of the field. After holding the Notre Dame offense to just eight goals on the road, the Blue Devils’ back line became more disruptive. Led by junior goalkeeper Danny Fowler, Duke allowed just 17 goals in the final three games of the season, a stretch during which Fowler recorded 31 saves. In front of the goal, the Blue Devils also outhustled their opponents, collecting 21 more ground balls during that span.
“[Ground balls were] a focus from the first day that we came to Duke,” Danowski said. “It describes, or represents, a work ethic and attitude, a blue-collar, lunch pail [mentality]. Maybe our shots hit the pipe or maybe we’re a step off defensively, but if we can pick up ground balls and get possession of the ball, we’ll have more opportunities to score and our opponents will have less. Let’s keep the game simple.”
The Fighting Irish (9-2, 3-1) bring their own brand of lockdown defense into the semifinal matchup. After losing the top-ranked spot in the nation and ACC tournament seeding with a 17-15 loss to then-No. 13 North Carolina in Chapel Hill last Saturday, Notre Dame is hungry to make it two straight against Duke.
The Fighting Irish enter Friday’s showdown with the fifth-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 7.6 goals per game. Goalkeeper Shane Doss recorded 11 saves against the Blue Devils April 10, and boasts a top-10 save percentage nationally this season at 57 percent.
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If Notre Dame’s defensive unit cranks up the pressure against Class and company once again—in the first matchup Duke committed a season-high 23 turnovers—and continues to utilize its effective ride defense, the Blue Devils could face another offensive drought similar to the one-goal final period that ended their midseason upset bid.
But Duke can also look to last season for motivation against the Fighting Irish. After being upended 15-10 at home in the 2015 regular season in Durham, the Blue Devils rebounded in the ACC tournament semifinals as the No. 4 seed, toppling top-seeded Notre Dame 13-8.
“It is definitely encouraging to see how we lost last year, and then to really turn that around in only a matter of weeks,” Class said. “We know the last two games we’ve really picked it up, especially on defense, and our offense is playing like we know how we can.”
With the Blue Devils fighting to lock up an NCAA tournament berth, the ACC championship might be the last hope of building their resume for the big dance. If Duke defeats the Fighting Irish Friday, the team will advance to Sunday’s championship game to play the winner of the other semifinal between No. 10 North Carolina and No. 7 Syracuse. With only a game at Boston University guaranteed on their schedule after the conference tournament, the Blue Devils have the opportunity the earn two statement wins before NCAA selections are made.
“The beauty of this year is that we have spent no time discussing [the NCAA tournament], even among the coaches. We don’t care,” Danowski said. “If somebody says we can’t play, then we can’t play. If we play another week, then we’ll be delighted. We really worked hard staying in the moment. Carpe diem is a phrase that we don’t use loosely around here and we really mean it, that we’re going to live for today, we’re going to practice today, enjoy the trip, enjoy staying in a hotel tonight, enjoy everything that goes on tomorrow and just stay in the moment.”