For the first 35 minutes of Duke’s season opener against Denver, all the hype surrounding the 2021 Blue Devils seemed like a bit of an exaggeration.
While the team eventually pulled it together, it wasn't the wealth of arriving talent that led the way. Rather, it was the older returners who anchored and propelled No. 1 Duke out of its early hole to defeat No. 5 Denver 12-10 Friday afternoon at Koskinen Stadium.
A timely goalie change to Turner Uppgren and a variety of veteran scorers in the final frames were key in erasing an early five-goal Pioneer lead, with the Blue Devils ending the contest on an 8-1 burst and holding Denver scoreless in the fourth quarter.
“Just relax and play the game,” head coach John Danowski, who earned his 200th career win at Duke with the victory, said on the message to his team at halftime. “Easier said than done for sure, but once the guys settled in and just kept playing.... Got contributions from many different individuals, and at the end we walk away with a two-goal win that could have gone either way.”
Denver (1-1), which opened its season with a win against Utah last week, certainly looked like the squad with game experience under its belt. The Pioneers answered an early Duke goal with six consecutive of their own, two of those six via Yale transfer and All-American attackman Jackson Morrill. The Blue Devils looked rusty trying to incorporate their new pieces, and simply couldn’t get possession to get the ball rolling.
Denver sophomore Alec Stathakis was monumental in the visiting team's early advantage, winning 11 of the game’s first 12 faceoffs. Four different Blue Devils tried, yet no one could stop Stathakis, who won 76% of his draws on the day.
“It just looked to me like [Stathakis] was terrific,” Danowski said. “Whoever we put out there, he whooped. We didn’t help ourselves by violating four times.”
With preseason All-American and St. Joseph's transfer goalie Mike Adler struggling, Danowski turned to Uppgren for a spark off the bench early in the second period. The graduate student, who has been in the program since 2016 and appeared in 42 career games prior to Friday, made an immediate impact for Duke, making much-needed stops to get the offense the ball. Uppgren totaled 11 saves compared to just four goals allowed over the final 43 minutes of the game.
“When they put me in, we just told the boys to calm down,” Uppgren said. “Let’s get one stop at a time. I think the best feeling today was just [the defense] stepping up and playing a lot better in front of me."
The main attractions entering the contest were the Blue Devil debuts of preseason Tewaaraton favorite Michael Sowers and top recruit Brennan O’Neill. The pair connected on a trio of goals and both ended the contest with four points. But with Duke still trailing 9-6 in the middle of the third period, Danowski’s squad had to turn to some familiar faces to finish off the comeback attempt.
First, goals via junior Owen Caputo and graduate student Sean Lowrie cut the Blue Devil deficit to 9-8. After Denver responded to make it 10-8, senior midfielder Nakeie Montgomery capped the third quarter with a score of his own to keep it a one-goal game going into the final frame.
“These older guys have been in these games, and that’s the hope, that you’re going to get not only leadership, but performance,” Danowski said. “The older guys, top to bottom, came up really big.”
Denver had plenty of chances to stop the run with its talented attack line, but eight second-half turnovers and a 1-of-7 performance on extra-man opportunities doomed the visitors. With the experienced Uppgren dialed in between the pipes and graduate student defender J.T. Giles-Harris coordinating the defense and taking away all passing lanes, Duke’s veteran depth put a strangle-hold on the Pioneers, making up for the shaky start.
While many expected the Blue Devils to click like a super team early, this game serves as proof that building chemistry takes time, especially for a group with so many new parts.
“I think the emotion that everyone was feeling was: I don’t know. I had no idea," Danowski said on what he and the coaches expected entering the game. "Team chemistry takes time. So the only way that it’s really going to be built [during the pandemic] is on gameday, adversity, being together, facing things as a group. I thought today was a terrific opportunity for our guys to learn about who we are and what we might become.”
With Duke exuding emotion and mental strength to start the fourth quarter, senior Cam Badour and Caputo found the net to put the Blue Devils back on top. And with just over a minute remaining, graduate student Sean Lowrie showed a thing or two that he’s learned in 64 career games, sneaking a bounce shot inside the right post to seal the win.
“You can just tell in his voice when [Danowski] is talking to us how much confidence he has in us,” O’Neill said on the message that turned the game around. “I think that rubs off on all of us and it makes us play that much better. That was one of his biggest pieces of advice to us, was to play confident.”
Duke got the job done in a top-five battle, and as previous seasons will tell you, the Blue Devils in February are eons away from their final, polished form. But if there’s one major takeaway that should stand the test of the season into May, it’s that Duke’s seasoned leaders behind the top newcomers will play a major role in the toughness of this team.
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