PHILADELPHIA—Not many people get to win their last game.
Although it’s perhaps every athlete’s dream to finish their collegiate career with a national championship and ride off into the sunset, reality is often more harsh.
And for Duke’s talented crop of seniors, they came up just short of a fairy tale ending.
After holding a two-goal lead against Virginia with less than a minute remaining, the Blue Devils could not hold on, and fell Saturday in the NCAA tournament semifinal to the eventual title-winning Cavaliers. But for Duke’s seniors, it was not the loss that stung the most, but rather the unceremonious end to their time as Blue Devils.
“I love this place with all my heart, and it hurts,” senior defenseman Cade Van Raaphorst said. “It hurts I don't ever get to wear this jersey anymore, that I don't get to be around these guys anymore, this coaching staff.
“We worked so hard throughout the whole year, we worked so hard after last year losing in the championship, to get back, and to fall short, it hurts, but more than anything it [hurts] saying goodbye to this group of guys and this program.”
Following the loss, Van Raaphorst is at the opposite side of the emotional spectrum than he was at a week earlier.
In May 18’s NCAA tournament quarterfinal against Notre Dame, the Phoenix native was on top of the world. His key ground ball in overtime set up Joe Robertson’s game-winning goal, which clinched Duke’s second consecutive Final Four appearance.
Van Raaphorst, a three-time USILA All-American, anchored an always strong Blue Devil defensive unit while at Duke. And for all four years of his Blue Devil career, Van Raaphorst had senior midfielder Brad Smith at his side.
A fellow three-time USILA All-American, Smith joined Van Raaphorst as Duke’s backbones this season. And just like Van Raaphorst, Saturday’s loss left Smith heartbroken.
“It's a tough realization, understanding it's the last time that you'll see these guys every single day, 47 of your brothers,” Smith said. “Then knowing that you're not going to be able to hang out in the hotel tonight or come back to the locker room ever again, it's tough.”
For each of the Blue Devils’ 11 seniors, the team was a second family for the last four years. And if the players were brothers, that would make their coaches something special: second fathers.
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“Fathers, while we were away at college,” Smith said. “[They] take care of us all the time, teach us lessons, valuable lessons, life lessons, on the field and off the field.”
2016, the freshman season for Duke’s current senior crop, was a recent low point for the program. The Blue Devils’ eight losses that campaign are the most by any Duke team under current head coach John Danowski, who has led the Blue Devils since 2007. Duke’s first round departure from the 2016 NCAA tournament was just one of two first round exits from the postseason in Danowski’s 13-year tenure.
But 2017 marked a major improvement for the Blue Devils, who demolished Johns Hopkins 19-6 in the NCAA tournament, before falling to eventual national runner-up Ohio State.
And in 2018 and 2019, Duke’s current seniors came incredibly close to winning the coveted national championship. Last year, the Blue Devils came up two goals short in the title game, and Duke’s hearts were broken in the Final Four last week.
While not going out on top stings, it is not the loss to Virginia that hurts for the Blue Devils, rather it is the loss of the graduating brothers and sons.
“No tears for losing, but we can certainly mourn the loss of this team,” Danowski said.