It is starting to look a lot like late spring in Durham.
The Blue Devils, coming off a strong 11-8 win against then-No. 4 Notre Dame last weekend, appear to be finding their groove at the right moment as they have so often in the past—the victory against the Fighting Irish was Duke’s ninth win of the year and fourth against a top-20 opponent—and the Blue Devils now have a chance to lock up the No. 2 seed in the upcoming ACC tournament.
No. 8 Duke will welcome No. 18 Virginia to Koskinen Stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Cavaliers—led by first-year head coach Lars Tiffany, the former head man at Brown who replaced lacrosse legend Dom Starsia after last season—feature star freshmen Micheal Kraus and Dox Aitken but enter the weekend without a win in conference play.
The Blue Devils, on the other hand, have won two straight conference games and will be looking to wrap up their ACC slate with yet another win Saturday afternoon.
“Virginia has always been a team that plays hard and plays for a full 60 minutes,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “They are very talented. If you sleep for a second on any one of their guys, they shoot the ball as good as anybody you will see and they have multiple guys that can make plays.”
Star attackman Justin Guterding, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer, took a back seat against Notre Dame, with Duke’s two midfield lines providing eight of the team’s 16 total points in the win. After struggling to initiate offense from the top of the box early in the season, the current combination of midfielders now looks ready to propel the Blue Devils late into the postseason.
During the past two weeks, Duke (9-3, 2-1 in the ACC) has dismantled a pair of top-10 defenses in the Fighting Irish and North Carolina—the fantastic off-ball movement created by the Blue Devil midfield stretched the Tar Heels too thin and managed to take slides away against Notre Dame.
Against North Carolina, nine of Duke’s 12 goals were assisted—midfielders dodging from the top of the box consistently drew slides, then dropped the ball off to Guterding and fellow star attack Jack Bruckner. One of those midfielders, sophomore John Prendergast, has come on strong lately, notching back-to-back goals in the second half against the Fighting Irish.
Last Saturday, primary downfield dodgers for the Blue Devils-—Brad Smith and Kevin Quigley—also showed what they can do on an island, as six of Duke’s 11 goals were unassisted. The team’s midfield transitions seem crisper than they were in February, and the emergence of the red-hot unit has the Blue Devils looking ready for the Cavaliers, who allow a miserable 12.5 goals per game.
“You’ve got to play and you’ve got to make mistakes,” Danowski said. “One of the biggest misconceptions at Duke is learning how to make mistakes and live through it. The greatest lessons we can learn are from losing [earlier in the season] and getting knocked down a bit. Our guys are learning how to do that now.”
Virginia (8-5, 0-3) brings a new identity and a new head coach to Durham, but history may not be in its favor. During the Danowski eara, Duke is 15-1 against the Cavaliers, and seven of the 15 wins have come by five goals or more.
Virginia is coming off a 15-7 victory against Robert Morris and brings a pair of high-powered freshman in Kraus and Aitken. Kraus is just five points away from beating former Tewaaraton Award winner Steele Stanwick’s freshman scoring record.
Senior Zed Williams, the heart and soul of Tiffany’s run-and-gun offense, brings leadership and a flair for the dramatic to the field. The Irving, N.Y., native leads the Cavaliers with 25 assists and provides a veteran’s eye to the youthful offense.
After starting the season 2-2, Duke is now in position to finish as the runner-up in the ACC regular season and with a late push, the Blue Devils may very well earn a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament next month—giving them a shot to play on their home turf in two postseason events after hosting the ACC tournament.
“We have always lived by this mantra that nothing is guaranteed after May 8,” Danowski said. “A bunch of people will sit in a room and they will look at the data and say whether you are in or out. We have no control over that—all we can say is, ‘Have a good practice today.’ That is really our mindset, to keep our heads down, keep working and see what happens.”
Duke will wear camouflage helmets for Military Appreciation Day in support of Jimmy Regan and the Lead the Way fund. Regan, who played for the Blue Devils from 1999 to 2002, was killed while deployed in Iraq in 2007. The helmets will be auctioned away during the game to support Lead the Way in its efforts to support disabled U.S. Army Rangers.
“We are just trying to do our part to raise awareness for the fund and to keep Jimmy’s memory alive,” Danowski said. “Jimmy will always be part of the Duke lacrosse program.”
Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.
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