After two straight years ending in heartbreak, Duke is ready to climb the mountain back to the Final Four once again, hoping to raise a trophy in Philadelphia.
Though the calendar just turned to February, the fifth-ranked Blue Devils will welcome Air Force to Koskinen Stadium Saturday at 2 p.m. as the program looks to capture its first national championship since 2014. With a roster that returns most key pieces from last season, Duke is once again a viable contender to win the ACC and reach championship weekend for a third consecutive year.
"Duke teams from since I've been here always play hard, but sometimes that's not enough," head coach John Danowski emphasized. "This is the Division I level, that is the standard. Everyone plays hard. We need to play hard, play smart and play together."
Last season ended in heart break for the Blue Devils, collapsing late in the semifinals against Virginia, the eventual champion. That double-overtime loss was another painful defeat for Duke, which fell to Yale in the 2018 national championship game.
Danowski will once again have one of the most talented rosters in the country, with the Blue Devils returning four of their top five scorers from last year and defense that includes the 2019 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, JT Giles-Harris. Duke also brings in a top recruiting class with Kenny Brower and Dyson Williams, the second and third-ranked players in the class, respectively, according to Inside Lacrosse. Graduate student Turner Uppgren is expected to anchor the Blue Devils in goal this year after starting every game last season.
"I think in terms of installation that we're ahead of where we were maybe a year ago in terms of understanding offense and defense," Danowski said. "The team seems to have a little bit higher I.Q. and picking up things a little bit quicker. Maybe that's because we're a little bit older, a little more veteran. I certainly like the speed in which we've picked up some of the things that we've been teaching."
Air Force will head into Koskinen as a familiar face with a history of solid competition against the Blue Devils. Although Duke coasted to an 18-4 victory two years ago, the Falcons made an early statement with a 11-10 win in 2017, which was the last time the Blue Devils lost a season opener.
One thing that Duke can definitely expect Saturday is to face a well-coached Air Force team. Falcon head coach Bill Wilson pushed the team toward a 2019 Southern Conference regular season title thanks to man-down defense and man-up offense units that both ranked in the top-12 nationally. 2019 leading scorer Trey Lervick is one of many returners who could push Air Force back to the NCAA tournament.
Last year's early upset loss to High Point proved that even Duke's talent could falter against smaller schools, and Danowski will surely keep that in mind as the Blue Devils search for a strong start in 2020.
"I can guarantee [Saturday] certainly won't be perfect, that's for sure," Danowski said. "I think the biggest thing is effort the first game. Are we organized, are we in the right spots, are we giving effort, what's our body language like? Do we struggle if we make a mistake? Do we hang our heads or do we have our heads up, keep playing and let it go? Those are the things we'll be looking for [Saturday].
After the opener, Duke will spend a couple weekends away from home to face familiar foes on the road against High Point and No. 9 Denver.
Riley Pfaff contributed reporting.
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