Following a second straight first-round exit in the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils are eager to show improvement this season.
And with the team's success likely contingent on how a slew of newcomers perform, Sunday's regular-season opener against a top-20 opponent could be a telling sign of Duke's potential this year.
The No. 10 Blue Devils welcome No. 17 Air Force to Durham Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium. Duke is hoping to avenge a 10-9 defeat from last season and will quickly have to re-tool after losing offensive stalwarts Myles Jones and Deemer Class in the offseason. The Blue Devils take on High Point and No. 3 Denver in the first few weeks of the season, meaning they cannot afford to waste any opportunities with eight top-20 opponents on their schedule this year.
“There is this fine line between not teaching too much and trying to build a foundation so you can move on to that next thing and try to jump ahead,” Duke head coach John Danowski told GoDuke.com. “Overall, the effort has been phenomenal. The weather has been cooperating, so we are starting to get healthy and I really do love this group.”
Although the Blue Devils have to replace their top two offensive midfielders, Duke will lean heavily on veterans Jack Bruckner and Justin Guterding to spearhead the attack. Bruckner is just one goal away from 100 for his career, and Guterding, a preseason All-ACC selection, carries a 37-game point streak into his junior campaign. The Garden City, N.Y., native is the returning ACC points leader with 71 last season.
“We have some new people to take a look at attack, with Joey Manown and Sean Lowrie,” Danowski said. “They are X factors—it is their first college game. At midfield, we are going to play Reilly Walsh, Kevin Quigley and Sean Cerrone. It will all be their first game in a Duke uniform. John Prendergast, a sophomore, who was a defensive midfielder for us last year, is now playing offensive midfield. So four out of five of our top offensive midfielders have not played offense for Duke ever.”
Walsh and Quigley will likely have chances to put up big numbers right away as top-20 recruits. A Bronxville, N.Y., native, Walsh was the 12th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2016 and put up 42 goals and 25 assists as a high school senior. Quigley was slated as the No. 17 player in his class with a knack for long-range shooting, and has been clocked shooting faster than 100 mph.
The rookie tandem will have to work with Bruckner and Guterding to put up goals against an Air Force defense that held the Blue Devils to fewer than 10 goals in last year's matchup.
On defense, Duke will need freshman JT Giles Harris—his brother Joe is a starting linebacker on the football team—and sophomore Cade Van Raaphorst to contribute immediately to a unit that struggled last season. Senior co-captain Ethan Powley will move back to a more natural position as a long-stick midfielder after starting as a defender the past two years.
He caused 21 turnovers last season and will look to steady a team that also needs touted freshman Terry Lindsay and junior Jake Seau to play well to contend in another loaded ACC.
"Freshman, redshirt freshman, new positions—it is going to be a lot of fun, but I honestly have no idea,” Danowski said when discussing expectations Sunday and moving forward.
Senior goalkeeper Danny Fowler is one of the team's few returners playing in the same spot he did in the past, returning after allowing 10.0 goals per contest in 19 starts a season ago. The All-ACC tournament team performer starred toward the end of the season, but is hoping to show more consistency along with the rest of the team's seniors starting Sunday afternoon.
Air Force will present a major challenge for the Blue Devils with six starters returning from last year's squad, including Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year Chris Walsch. An honorable mention All-American, Walsch posted 64 points a season ago, and the conference's Rookie of the Year Brandon Jones forced 28 turnovers last season.
With Walsch likely to spearhead the Falcon offense, Air Force will turn to Jones to slow down the Duke offense.
And after winning a national championship as freshmen before struggling as sophomores and juniors, the Blue Devil seniors are hoping to set a positive tone starting with their first regular-season game of 2017.
“This group understands that they go as the team goes and they have done a great job at bringing the younger guys along with them,” Danowski said. “They have shown a great work ethic in the weight room and are putting up some great performances in the classroom. So all the markers we look for are there, we do not see any red flags.”
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