Before the game, Duke head coach John Danowski had written the word “Scrap” on the locker-room whiteboard.
Scrap is exactly what his team did, as the No. 1 Blue Devils overcame a four-goal deficit to blank No. 4 Denver in the fourth quarter en route to a 15-12 win before a wet, raucous house at Koskinen Stadium Friday evening.
“That’s what we want to hang our hat on at the end of the day. We don’t want to hang our hat on Justin Guterding or Joe Robertson or Dan Fowler or any individual,” Danowski said. “You want to have this collective, relentless persona that it could be anybody that has a great night. When the ball’s on the ground, it’s a matter of a little bit of technique but just a lot more want.”
Scrap defined Duke (4-0) for the entire game, as both sides traded penalties, body blows and turnovers on the wet grass, leaving room for some unlikely contributors to steal the show.
Although the Blue Devils would take a 1-0 lead just 48 seconds into the game on an unassisted jump shot from junior Brad Smith, the Pioneers (1-1) responded quickly with four straight goals. Denver used snappy passing and some lapses in communication on the part of Duke’s defense to get Colton Jackson, Ethan Walker, Colton McCaffrey and Nate Marano open and in position.
Justin Guterding, who once again shined with three goals and three assists, stemmed the tide with his first goal of the evening on a spectacular individual effort as he shot fast enough to beat Pioneer goalkeeper Alex Ready, while the close defense pushed him off balance. Despite Guterding’s unassisted brilliance, Walker would get another back for Denver to put the Pioneers up 5-2 after 15 minutes of play.
Between the sophomore attackman Walker and senior faceoff man Trevor Baptiste, the Blue Devils were under pressure all night. Baptiste, in particular, went 23-of-30 from the faceoff X, allowing the Pioneers to play make-it-take-it lacrosse all night, forcing Duke to hustle for every possible possession opportunity. Walker finished with eight points on six goals and a pair of assists.
The Blue Devils responded in the second quarter, thanks to four Denver turnovers. Graduate transfer Peter Conley and sophomores Joey Manown and Kevin Quigley all found the back of the net on a 3-0 Duke run to tie the game at five. Walker and the Blue Devils’ Reilly Walsh traded goals to take the game into halftime tied at six, but the second half seemed like an entirely different game altogether.
The Pioneers came out of the break with all the firepower on their side. Baptiste won 7-of-8 faceoffs in the third quarter, dominating possession after possession with no answer from the Duke unit. Walker and Guterding traded goals 30 seconds apart before Denver went on a tear it seemed the Blue Devils could not come back from.
The Pioneers managed two goals on the extra-man unit, as short stick defensive midfielder John Prendergast was flagged for a pair of 30-second penalties. Walker added yet another goal before Conley stopped the bleeding momentarily. Denver, thoroughly unfazed, slotted home another pair of goals from McCaffrey and Connor Donohue.
The Blue Devils went into the final frame down 12-8 and unable to secure possessions consistently thanks to the brilliance of Baptiste. In that last 15 minutes, stars were made and scrap was displayed to its fullest.
“We got challenged. Our character got challenged and we responded well,” Guterding said. “That’s a testament to our senior class. We wanted to win this game really badly. We’d lost to them three straight years.... We wanted to dominate in the fourth and we went seven-nothing.
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Fowler went back between the pipes to man the defense after sitting out the bulk of the third quarter, the rope unit tightened up and freshman Joe Robertson announced his arrival to college lacrosse.
Duke forced Denver into seven fourth-quarter turnovers with relentless effort on ground balls and faceoffs. After seeing little success from inexperienced sophomore Brian Smyth against the best faceoff man in the nation, assistant coach Ron Caputo decided to put defensive midfielder Sean Cerrone out on the faceoff. Cerrone, who had never taken a faceoff in his two years at Duke to date, not even in practice, went 2-of-6, but pursued Baptiste relentlessly after every Denver win on the draw.
Meanwhile Fowler seemed to grow larger in the cage, making a huge save with four minutes to play, and defensemen Cade Van Raaphorst and Kevin McDonough, alongside sophomore defensive midfielder Terry Lindsey and senior long-stick midfielder Peter Welch, harassed the Denver offense.
On the other side of the ball, Robertson scored all four of his goals in the fourth quarter, including three in a row at one point, shooting jump shots, quick sticks and time-and-room rippers off passes from Guterding, Conley and Brad Smith. Robertson, despite his youth, illustrated his instant chemistry with Guterding by being in the right spots for the senior’s passes time and time again.
“I came off a little bit timid at first,” Robertson said. “It’s a big game. Once I settled in, I think that we all settled in. Once the ball came my way, people cut, it set up shooting lanes and luckily, I finished it. Just work on it in practice, and that’s how it goes.”
With a two-goal lead, 70 seconds to play and the shot clock down to one, Walsh caught the goalkeeper out of his cage and, in the fashion of former Duke great Jordan Wolf, took a stutter step and accelerated all the way to the cage to flush it home and give Duke a 15-12 lead. And when it mattered most, down three with just more than a minute to play, Baptiste committed a faceoff violation, giving the Blue Devils a chance to bleed down the clock for the win.
Crashing the midfield, playing physically and running up and down the field indiscriminately, Duke pulled out a win against one of the most talented teams in the nation, defending its No. 1 ranking for the first time in earnest all season. The Blue Devils will follow this effort with a trip up to Pennsylvania next week in Philadelphia.