Almost a year ago, Duke walked off the field at Gillette Stadium in anguish, falling 13-11 to Yale in the national championship game.
But Saturday in Philadelphia, the second-seeded Blue Devils could get one step closer to avenging that heartbreaking defeat.
Duke will continue its NCAA tournament run in the national semifinals against No. 3 seed Virginia at 12 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field. This will mark the program’s 11th Final Four appearance and 10th since 2005. The Blue Devils have not brought home a national championship, however, since winning back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014.
“I think everybody here is excited,” head coach John Danowski said. “The coaching staff is excited to be working for another week and I think the players are excited to be together and just enjoying the time together and the preparation to play a great ACC opponent.”
The Cavaliers (15-3) will mark the second consecutive conference foe for Duke (13-4) , with the Blue Devils taking down Notre Dame 14-13 in overtime last Saturday to make it to championship weekend. But Virginia presents something Danowski’s squad did not see in either the Fighting Irish or in first-round opponent Richmond—an elite offensive attack.
Saturday will be a classic offense vs. defense duel, with Virginia ranking sixth nationally in scoring offense and Duke ranking sixth in scoring defense. The two units have met once so far this season, with the Blue Devils taking control in the fourth quarter en route to a 12-7 victory last month at Koskinen Stadium in Durham.
But teams and players change over the course of a year, and that could not be more true than for the Cavaliers and star midfielder Ryan Conrad. While Conrad was named a USILA first team All-American along with teammates Jared Conners and Dox Aitken, the Timonium, Md., native was a not a major factor in the scoring department prior to the NCAA tournament, scoring no goals against Duke and only 14 goals in 14 regular season games.
Over Virginia’s last two matchups, however, the senior has been on fire, notching five goals against Robert Morris in the first round and four more against Maryland in the quarterfinals. With attackmen Matt Moore, Michael Kraus and Ivan Laviano already combining for 121 goals between them and Aitken adding another 39, the Cavaliers’ offense could be extremely scary if Conrad continues his hot streak into Philly.
“Just like last week...Notre Dame had more than two guys,” Danowski said. “I think at this stage in the tournament you can say that about every team that is there. Every man who steps on that field across that midfield line is capable.”
Virginia is not the only team with athletes who play their best when the lights shine brightest, though. Last year, then-freshman Nakeie Montgomery broke out in the NCAA tournament with eight goals after totaling just six prior to the tournament. And this year, the Dallas native is doing it yet again.
After notching 17 goals and 10 assists in 13 games prior to the tournament, the sophomore midfielder tallied three goals and two assists against the Spiders before scoring one goal and adding four assists against the Fighting Irish.
“[Montgomery] is an excellent student of the game,” Danowski said. “He wants the ball in his stick—all the great ones do. But he is really trying to develop an understanding of team defense and...where the open man is going to be. I think you are seeing it in his production in assists. He has become a much more balanced threat than he was earlier in the year.”
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Joining Montgomery atop the season point leaders is sophomore attackman Joe Robertson as well as senior Brad Smith, who benefited greatly after being switched back from attack to midfield during the latter part of the season.
Outside of Montgomery, the Blue Devils’ offense last year heavily relied upon senior attackman Justin Guterding. But with Guterding—whose 97 points last year tied for second on Duke’s all-time single-season list—since graduated, Danowski’s offense must be far more balanced if the Blue Devils want to avoid ending the season with a loss once again.
“Every season, offenses have to find their chemistry,” Danowski said. “I think the way that we teach offense, [assistant coach] Matt Danowski especially, is a hybrid of a lot of different concepts. We rely on all six guys making plays. Some of those plays are going to be invisible, some of those plays are not really obvious to everybody.”
But no matter how Duke scores the ball, this year’s Blue Devil squad will be defined by its defense, led by USILA first team All-Americans Cade Van Raaphorst and JT Giles-Harris. And if Danowski and company want to keep on working through Monday—with a potential national title matchup against the victor of No. 1 seed Penn State and No. 5 seed Yale—that defense must stay locked in for all 60 minutes on Saturday.
“It is different every year and this year we are a little bit more defensive oriented,” Danowski said. And that is fine with us. We are still playing...the hope is that we will be in great shape and we will be able to play for 60 minutes and not only play physically but be focused and be locked in for 60 minutes.”
Derek Saul contributed reporting.