When Duke beat Jacksonville in March, Blue Devil head coach John Danowski made history with his NCAA Division I record 376th career win. Standing next to him on the sideline for the seminal victory was his son—assistant coach and former Blue Devil great Matt Danowski.
In 2007, Matt Danowski won the Tewaaraton Award, awarded annually to the Division I Player of the Year. Now, 10 years later, he mentors a lethal attack unit for a vastly different program than the one he graduated from nearly a decade ago.
“That award, just like any individual award, was really a team award,” Danowski said. “I played with some really great players. Zack Greer is the obvious one.... Without him, I obviously don’t have that. Without Casey Caroll, Tony McDevitt, Mike Ward, Nick O’Hara, Dan Loftus and our defense, it wouldn’t have happened either. I think it was more of a testament to how good a team we were. I happened to be on the end of the rainbow a bunch of times.”
The 2007 season marked a transition period for Duke as a program. Although the team had been among the top teams in the nation for several years, it seemed locked into its perennial bridesmaid status.
It was Danowski’s 2007 Tewaaraton win—the program’s first—that helped Duke quickly move past the recently-resolved lacrosse case and catalyzed its rapid ascension to becoming the nation’s premier program. Having already earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2004 and first-team All-American status in 2005, Danowski did not emerge from obscurity to capture the trophy.
But when his father took the job following Mike Pressler’s dismissal in 2006, Danowski took on an even greater leadership role, and his ensuing 96 points—which led the nation in 2007—made the award all but assured. The Blue Devils fell in the national championship by one goal to Johns Hopkins, just as they did in 2005, but the influence of the program’s first major hardware would manifest in a string of titles in the not-so-distant future.
“I didn’t do anything,” John Danowski said. “When I came here, his [junior] year, he was already a two-time first-team All American, he was already two-time ACC Player of the Year, so it wasn’t anything that I was responsible for.... This was his team, this was his school. I was kind of like an interloper. I didn’t unlock anything.”
Matt Danowski finished his Duke career in 2008 as the NCAA’s all-time leader in total points, but found his championship hopes dashed with a third consecutive loss to Johns Hopkins in the Final Four. Danowski’s No. 40 was retired before he started his professional career. Despite losing their most dynamic player, the Blue Devils maintained their success without him, going on to reach the Final Four again in 2009 before falling to Syracuse.
The following year was the first that Danowski’s Tewaaraton win translated to the sport’s ultimate prize. The team finally came out on top for the first time in a close national championship game with a dramatic 6-5 overtime win against Notre Dame. Ned Crotty, who played alongside Danowski for two seasons, captured Duke’s second Tewaaraton Award that season.
Danowski then joined his father on the sidelines in 2012, and the effect on the Duke attack was seemingly instantaneous. After promising sophomore years, the 2013 attack unit for the Blue Devils proved deadly for opponents. Jordan Wolf, Josh Dionne and Christian Walsh lit up opponents en route to beating Syracuse in the national championship, and that same group, with added depth in Case Matheis and Kyle Keenan, took down Notre Dame again to complete a title defense in 2014.
Now, Danowski—a five-time Major League Lacrosse All-Star who still plays professionally in the summer—presides over two Tewaaraton watch list players of his own. Through 11 games this year, Justin Guterding and Jack Bruckner have emerged as two of the best attackmen in the country with a combined 97 points. As a junior, Guterding in particular seems poised to surpass Danowski’s scoring records, as he became the fastest Duke player to 100 points last season.
“I remember growing up watching Matt,” Guterding said. “He was my role model for God knows how long. I just remember watching him play and get to the Final Four. [Being coached by him] is incredible. He’s one of the best of all time.… It’s an honor playing for him.”
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For all that has changed for men’s lacrosse in Durham, the sport has also changed outside the confines of Koskinen Stadium. With more and more youth players adopting the sport and the number of Division I programs increasing in the last decade, parity and contentious recruiting battles for young high schoolers have become commonplace.
This has caused a rude awakening for the Blue Devils in the postseason, as they followed a string of eight straight Final Four appearances with a pair of first-round exits from the NCAA tournament. It is simply harder to win in 2017 than it was in 2014 or even 2007.
“I think there’s a lot more kids playing,” Danowski said. “It’s still a niche sport but there’s more kids playing than there ever have been, which is a good thing. The early recruiting has probably played into the parity a little bit.... There’s kids who are developing later and kids that [used to say], ‘Maybe I’ll play D-III football,’ are choosing to play D-I lacrosse.”
A great deal has changed in the decade since Danowski helped shift the Blue Devils’ trajectory with his award, but Duke could still develop into a title contender with an 8-3 record this season and has played a number of freshmen from its top-ranked recruiting class from last summer.
“It certainly helps, being on good teams, playing on ESPN,” Danowski said. “More kids see it and they think of more than just basketball when they think of Duke in terms of looking at schools for lacrosse.”