As most Duke students were away from campus enjoying Spring Break, the Blue Devils looked to take advantage of extra time away from the classroom to build on a three-game winning streak.
By continuing to improve on both ends of the field, Duke did just that with two more easy victories, and now the Blue Devils will look to show they are true contenders this season.
After cruising past Jacksonville and Georgetown by a combined 12 goals, No. 11 Duke will face its second top-10 opponent of the season at 1:30 p.m. Saturday when it takes on No. 6 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. Two of the Blue Devils’ five wins in a row came against top-20 foes, and after collapsing early in the season at then-No. 1 Denver, Duke is trying to show how much it has grown heading into its ACC gauntlet.
Head coach John Danowski’s team will take on three more top-15 conference foes following Saturday’s contest in North Carolina, Notre Dame and Virginia, meaning every play will count when the Blue Devils and Orange rekindle one of the sport’s best rivalries.
The two historic programs have met as conference foes and with enormous ACC and NCAA tournament stakes, and this matchup promises to join a long list of entertaining shootouts. Like Duke, Syracuse is carrying plenty of momentum into the game coming off an 8-7 win at then-No. 14 Johns Hopkins.
“We have played [Syracuse] in all these neat venues and places and they have a great tradition of lacrosse,” Danowski said. “They are really well-coached and they have five one-goal victories [this season], so they are battle-tested. They know how to win the close games and that is not going to rattle them at all. They are just flat-out good—good at goalie and faceoff, with some dynamic offensive players and some strong athletes on defense. They have very few weaknesses we can see.”
Although the Blue Devils are relying on a number of new faces around core offensive veterans Justin Guterding and Jack Bruckner, the Orange (5-1, 1-0 in the ACC) boast one of the most experienced offensive units in the nation.
Fifth-year senior Sergio Salcido leads the way, as the former walk-on already has six goals and 14 assists so far this season and is his team’s heart and soul. In the overtime win against John’s Hopkins, the Winter Park, Fla., native had a team-high three points.
“The Salcido story is great, he was a walk-on, fifth-year senior and a great story for athletics and young people,” Danowski said. “He’s got 14 assists this year but we also know he can score. He had four goals against us last year, I think he has averaged six points a game against us in his career. He loves playing Duke and has been very successful at it.”
Denver transfer Brandon Bomberry will also test a Duke defense that has shown improvement in recent weeks, as the junior has a unique ability to create his own shot. Bomberry netted the game-winner in his team’s last contest and has combined with veteran midfielder Nick Mariano for 25 goals through six games.
Like Salcido, Mariano has had past success against the Blue Devils (7-2), but Duke goalkeeper Danny Fowler will look to get his team off to a strong start in ACC play. The Blue Devils gave up 29 goals to the Orange in two games last season, and hope a recent streak of allowing 6.2 goals per contest in their last five games bodes well for Fowler and the defense in front of him.
Danowski emphasized the importance of adjusting to Syracuse’s attacking style and doing the little things well in a hostile environment, with many of his underclassmen on defense about to get their first taste of ACC lacrosse.
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“Winning faceoffs always helps you play less defense,” Danowski said. “Playing smart on offense and not allowing run-outs and people to get easy ones always helps your defense and staying out of the penalty box—all those things help.”
The battle inside the faceoff circle will be particularly important Saturday, with Blue Devil senior Kyle Rowe going up against Orange senior Ben Williams in a matchup of veterans who are very familiar with pressure situations. Both players currently rank outside the top 20 nationally in faceoff percentage, but a particularly strong effort one way or the other could give one of the top-15 teams a decisive edge.
As Duke’s young defenders hope to quickly acclimate themselves in their third road game of the season, the Blue Devils will also need freshman attack Joey Manown and company to continue playing well on the other end of the field.
Duke got off to slow starts in its first two road tests before Guterding sparked furious rallies, one of which came up short at Denver and the other of which resulted in a key win at then-No. 16 Richmond. But against another potent offense, Danowski’s club could do itself a big favor by starting fast and putting the pressure on a defensive unit that allows almost 10 goals per contest.
Despite the pressure awaiting his team, Danowski said he wants his players to learn how to handle the adversity themselves as his unit continues coming together.
“It is only a 27-hour trip, it is super short. They will learn that the Syracuse fans are really knowledgeable. They love lacrosse and they respect good lacrosse,” Danowski said. “They really honor the game. It is a really neat environment if you can earn the respect of their fans by playing well and competing, you’ve done a great job.”