Last season, Duke reached the sport’s highest stage for the first time since 2014 before coming up just three goals short of a national championship. 

This weekend in Greenville, S.C.—a far cry from the crowds at Gillette Stadium last Memorial Day—the Blue Devils will begin their quest to return to the final weekend of the season and avoid graduating just the second class of men’s lacrosse players since 2009 to leave campus without a national title.

After a scrimmage last week against Ohio State, No. 2 Duke will play its official regular-season opener Saturday against Furman at Paladin Stadium. The Blue Devils return several key players from last season’s national runner-up team, including preseason All-American defensemen J.T. Giles-Harris and Cade Van Raaphorst, on a slightly older team than those of years past. 

“I have noticed [a] maturity or experience factor that some of the older guys have now that they didn’t have previously,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “Two years ago we lost in the quarterfinals, last year of course we lost in the finals, and it’s not so much about when you lose but you’re gaining two extra weeks of practice, three extra weeks of practice, and you’re playing in significant games in cool environments [with] big crowds.”

Giles-Harris and Van Raaphorst, both juniors, are among the upperclassmen who have gotten significant playing time in those big games in the last two years and figure to be the anchors for a Blue Devil defense looking to carry over its reputation from 2018. The close-defense duo combined for 45 forced turnovers last season and were critical components of a defensive unit that surrendered just 8.65 goals per game. 

Behind the defense, Duke will open the season without Danny Fowler between the pipes for the first time in four years and will instead look to senior Turner Uppgren to fill the role of the graduated three-year starter. Uppgren appeared in 10 games last season backing up Fowler and finished with a 9.19 goals against average for the Blue Devils, albeit in limited playing time. He’ll get the nod over a pair of freshman goalies and fellow senior David McCann. 

“Right now it’s Turner’s job—he’s a senior, he’s a terrific leader, he understands what we’re trying to do defensively, he clears the ball well, he’s very vocal and it’s his spot,” Danowski said.

With Giles-Harris, Van Raaphorst and Uppgren anchoring the defense, one of the most exciting aspects of this year’s Duke team is the opportunity to get out in transition with one of the most talented midfield rotations in the country. This year could be especially conducive to fast breaks and getting the ball out in transition after the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel made some significant changes in the offseason, including installing a shot clock on every possession and reducing the substitution box to 10 yards. 

“The most fun you can have in lacrosse is to play good solid defense and then get rewarded by being able to run out a little bit. We’re all waiting for Duke to play good ‘D’ so Zion [Williamson] can dunk the ball on the break. And it’s the same thing [for lacrosse],” Danowski said. “I think you’re going to see more transition opportunities where people can’t stop the runouts like they could the last couple of years because of the long substitution box.”

The midfield unit for the Blue Devils features Nakeie Montgomery, Kevin Quigley and Brad Smith, who were all significant contributors last season, with Smith trailing only Justin Guterding on the team in points scored. Montgomery also made significant progress over the course of his freshman season, appearing in every game before starting in the final four contests, including the national championship game. That extra experience will be critical this year as teams adjust to the new shot clock rules. 

“In the past, you could get away with being a little faster, a little stronger than your opponent, you could maybe hold the ball and be a little more deliberate on offense,” Danowski said. “Now you’re going to have to possess a lot of skills. You’re going to have to be able to read defenses, to be unselfish, to be happy with a second or third assist. I think that everybody’s IQ is going to need to be heightened more than ever.”

The Blue Devils’ middie core will also be important this year in the absence of the graduated Guterding, the all-time NCAA scoring leader who could singlehandedly take over the game on the offensive end of the field. Although Duke retained several capable attackmen, including Joe Robertson and Joey Manown, taking advantage of its ability to run with experienced midfielders could prove to be a huge benefit.

Furman should give the Blue Devils a chance to work through some of their early-season rust ahead of a daunting nonconference slate that includes No. 4 Loyola (Md.) and No. 8 Denver in addition to dangerous teams in Jacksonville, Towson and Penn. Furman is led by Richie Meade, the 2017 Southern Conference Coach of the Year who began his career as an assistant at Duke in 1977. Will Holcomb, the team’s lone preseason All-Southern Conference team member, averaged 2.77 points per game last year and was named first-team All-Southern Conference. 

For the Blue Devils, though, the focus will be on themselves and the adjustments they need to make to return to Memorial Day weekend with a new look compared to last year. Duke pulled in the sixth-best recruiting class in the nation this year according to Inside Lacrosse, and highly-ranked players like Wilson Stephenson and Garrett Leadmon could see significant action as early as Saturday as Danowski goes for his 400th career win.

“We didn’t know what [new] guys could do under the pressure. It’s one thing doing it against your teammates in practice every day, it’s another when all of a sudden the lights go on, so to speak,” Danowski said. “For a lot of those guys for their first action we thought they did a really nice job.”