Since the Blue Devils captured back-to-back national titles in 2013 and 2014, their postseason resumé looks like this: two first-round NCAA tournament exits, one NCAA tournament victory and zero championship banners of any sort.
For a program that is recognized as one of the gold standards in college lacrosse, the last three years for Duke have been underwhelming at best.
But on the heels of one of the most successful regular seasons in recent memory, this group of Blue Devils has a chance to reverse that trend. And it all begins at 2:15 p.m. Saturday when No. 4 seed Duke hosts Villanova in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at Koskinen Stadium.
The last time the Blue Devils played an NCAA game on their home turf in 2015, they left the field stunned after suffering a shocking 16-11 defeat at the hands of unseeded Ohio State—the same team that knocked them out in last year’s quarterfinals.
So even though Duke enters the weekend as a favorite yet again, it knows that it cannot allow the mishaps of the past to come back to haunt them.
“Our message [to the younger guys] is listen to Coach [Danowski],” senior attackman Justin Guterding said of making it to the Final Four. “He keeps telling us it’s going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done and if we just listen to everything he says, we’ll make it to where we want to be.”
Of course, in an exclusive 16-team field there are no cakewalk matchups, and the Wildcats are no exception. Villanova (10-5) is a perfect 7-0 in road or neutral site games including a 10-9 overtime victory against Yale—the tournament’s third overall seed—back in February.
“Villanova is awesome,” Blue Devil head coach John Danowski said. “Offensively, they are experienced and they’re slick and they’re unpredictable and they are confident—they are a terrific offensive team…. We’re going to have to play extremely well to be competitive.”
Although the Wildcats struggle on the defensive end of things, ranking among the bottom half of Division I squads, Villanova has plenty of offensive firepower. Four different Wildcats have scored at least 24 goals on the season, led by 6-foot senior attackman Christian Cuccinello.
Could Duke be in for an offensive shootout this weekend? Well, with Guterding leading a fiery Blue Devil attack unit sitting at sixth in the nation, that sure seems the case.
“It’s always fun playing games like that as opposed to playing against teams who like to sit on the ball,” Guterding said. “It’s exciting going into a game like that but as long as we score more goals than them, that’s really all that matters.”
In nine all-time matchups, Duke (13-3) has lost just once to the Wildcats. But since Danowski took over the Blue Devil program in 2007, the teams have not met.
Despite the lack of recent history, though, the teams’ unfamiliarity ends just about there. Senior midfielder Sean Cerrone played his first two seasons at Villanova and sophomore midfielder Kevin Quigley’s twin brother, Brendan, also plays middie for the Wildcats.
If there isn’t already enough excitement involved with an NCAA tournament game, a sibling rivalry can only add fuel to the fire.
“I’ve been trying to keep it so that we haven’t talked at all this week,” Quigley said. “The only communication we’ve had is a few messages in a group with all my sisters in it, but we’ve tried to keep the communication between us pretty low…. I just feel like it’s better if we go into the game focused on our own teams, we can give the best effort while we’re out there.”
Duke goalkeeper Danny Fowler, who has remained a steady force in net all season, explained that even though the Blue Devil coaching staff has already given the team a full scouting report, Cerrone’s knowledge of the Villanova program has given them a bit of an extra leg up.
“Coming here, I never really expected to play Villanova because we’re just in different conferences, but once we found out we were playing them last Sunday, I was like, ‘Okay, I get to go against some of my friends from freshman and sophomore year,’” Cerrone said. “It’s going to be interesting because I haven’t seen most of those guys, but I guess I’m going to have to just not be friends with them.”
Ultimately, though, the key for Duke is going to be early momentum.
Last weekend, the Blue Devils found themselves in a quick two-goal hole against Boston University before they used a dominant 11-1 outburst to seize control of the game. Two weeks prior, Duke trailed Notre Dame 6-2, and even though the Blue Devils would tie things up, they ran out of juice at the end en route to a 14-11 loss.
And in last season’s quarterfinal loss to the Buckeyes, Duke dug itself a 4-1 hole, never leading at any point in the game.
If the Blue Devils and their senior class want to accomplish what they have yet to achieve, it starts with the 60 minutes in front of them.
“Every program would like to start fast, but last week we were down 2-0 against BU and then you’ve just got to play with the cards you’re dealt,” Danowski said. “Sure, we’d love to come out firing on all cylinders but we also understand that they’re thinking the same thing.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."