Before the opening whistle in February, most media outlets had Duke ranked atop their polls. Boasting experience, athleticism and physicality in the attack, midfield and defensive units, it seemed as though the Blue Devils had a perfect roster. 

A perfect roster with one large question mark. 

After years of excellent faceoff play from veterans like Brendan Fowler—the 2013 NCAA Championship Most Outstanding player—and Kyle Rowe, who ranks fourth all-time in the nation in career ground balls, Duke entered 2018 without a clear heir apparent on the draw.

Enter the four-man team of freshmen Joe Stein and Trey Bender, sophomore Brian Smyth and senior Tom Palisi. Although Stein and Smyth have seen the vast majority of game action so far this season, every member of the unit has worked to turn a question mark into a two-headed monster. 

Despite a shaky start to the year, the Blue Devils have come around, winning 17 of 24 faceoffs against North Carolina and 20 of 32 against Syracuse, critical conference games in which the team needed a possession advantage. Smyth started the year as the primary faceoff man, but after an injury left him unable to go in a road win at Loyola, Stein took over the top spot. The two have begun alternating depending on the opponent and situation, giving Duke a unique combination ready for anything.

“Tom is the leader of the faceoff group,” Stein said. “He’s our senior, and I think he makes sure that we’re in line for practice and schedules what we’re going to do and what we’re going to drill every day.... Brian is extremely scrappy and is extremely good at ground balls.”  

Stein and Smyth came to Duke ranked No. 2 and No. 3 at the faceoff position in their respective recruiting classes, but the duo won more than half of their draws in only two of their first six games. With neither having played significant minutes at the college level, the new level of competition proved initially jarring. 

“In high school, I never really practiced faceoffs,” Smyth said. “When I’d go against guys, I’d swipe the ball out, and the biggest difference [now] is ground balls. Guys are bigger, faster and you’ve got to tuck your stick and go in two-handed…. Being in the weight room is important, getting stronger to be able to hold your own.”

There is a growing emphasis on developing faceoff players in an era when the faceoff game has become highly specialized, technical and competitive. In the past, teams were content to put midfielders with quick reflexes out on the draw, but faceoff play has become a massive point of expertise, as faceoff men are now built more like wrestlers than attackmen. Players are developed as faceoff-specific athletes from a younger and younger age, often playing the draw exclusively at the youth and high school level. 

Duke, specifically, has been home to some of the most storied faceoff men in the history of college lacrosse, from the consistent brilliance of Rowe and the heroics of Fowler in the 2013 and 2014 national championship games to the iconic play of C.J. Costabile, whose overtime faceoff win and fast-break shot won Duke its first national championship in 2010. 

From the beginning of head coach John Danowski’s tenure, rarely have the Blue Devils been without a dominant player at the X, but the coaching staff is unwilling to admit that they had any great effect on faceoff play through 11 years now. 

“I think they came to us as kind of finished products,” Danowski said. “I don’t know that we did too much. Brendan Fowler was a wonderful three-sport athlete and faceoff man all throughout high school. Kyle Rowe was a great faceoff man at Stony Brook before he transferred here, and his brother Jack Rowe was our faceoff man here as well.”

With those players in mind, Danowski and assistant coach Ron Caputo will attempt to work with their young talent, which is heating up during the stretch run toward the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The Blue Devils are 10-2 and, despite an 0-for-3 start from Stein, Smyth recovered to win five of 10 draws in a win Saturday Notre Dame. 

“From day one, faceoffs are a very technical position,” Palisi said. “The subtleties that make the difference between winning and losing are milliseconds, and [Smyth] is extremely strong and [Stein] has extremely fast hands. I am extremely knowledgeable about the position, and as long as the team wins at the end of the day, I don’t care who’s playing.” 

Regardless of who plays, Duke has positioned itself well at a critical position going into the end of the year, and with two young, productive players, it may be positioned even better going forward.