'Taking it all in': After 630-day absence, Joe Robertson scores 4 goals in Duke's win against Mercer

Robertson led Duke in points and goals in 2019 before tearing his ACL just prior to the start of the 2020 season.
Robertson led Duke in points and goals in 2019 before tearing his ACL just prior to the start of the 2020 season.

Joe Robertson led Duke in both points and goals in 2019, including the overtime game-winner to send the Blue Devils to the Final Four. While Duke would lose in the national semifinal to Virginia, it was a dream season for the then-sophomore.

Little did Robertson know that the loss to the Cavaliers would be his last competitive lacrosse game for 630 days.

The Virginia native tore his ACL just before the 2020 campaign began, ruling him out for the season before anyone had any idea COVID-19 would cut it short anyway.

Then, just hours before Duke's 2021 season-opener last Friday against then-No. 5 Denver, the team announced that Robertson's long-awaited return would be put on hold, as he and two of his teammates would have to miss the Blue Devils' opening two games due to "the school's health protocols" (when asked about the trio's absence postgame last Friday, head coach John Danowski was only able to say it was "due to Duke University protocols").

But in Saturday's win against Mercer, Robertson finally donned the blue and white and took the field for an official game. And now he knows to cherish every second of it.

"It's just taking it all in," Robertson said regarding the emotion of finally returning. "It's definitely been a long road since I've been back and been out on the field, so just taking it in, moment by moment. Every time I'm on the field, just having fun."

Despite the lengthy absence, it didn't take long for Robertson to find his groove. Less than four minutes into the contest, graduate student attackman Michael Sowers dished the ball from behind the cage to Robertson, who was camping right in front of the goal and put in the easy score. It was already Duke's fourth goal of the game, but as Robertson's first, this one definitely meant a little extra.

"Yeah, it was cool," Robertson said of notching the early goal. "It helped me settle in a little bit. [I] definitely had butterflies in my stomach last night, and the whole week, just thinking about this game. It's been a while since I played."

Robertson wasn't done, however.

Just over three minutes later, defenseman Braden Burke sprinted down the pitch and shoveled a pass to Robertson, who fired in his second goal of the game to put the Blue Devils ahead 5-0. And less than three minutes after that, Robertson secured the first-quarter hat trick, wrapping around the left side of the cage and firing it in himself to give Duke a 7-1 advantage.

When all was said and done, Robertson finished with four goals and an assist as the top-ranked Blue Devils walloped Mercer 17-8 in Koskinen Stadium. After surprisingly having to come from behind in each of its two games last week, Duke's early domination Saturday finally displayed the potential the team has. And Robertson's return was undoubtedly a large reason for that.

"Having Joe back [Wednesday] in practice, it was just a big lift," Danowski said. "He settles everybody down, he understands how we play offense—even though he didn't play last year through the abbreviated season, he is a student of the game. It's like having another coach on the field. He understands exactly what we're trying to accomplish on offense. And so I was really happy for him that in his debut back this year that he was able to hit the net a couple times."

As Danowski mentioned, Robertson's presence on the field had a big impact on his teammates, especially Sowers. The superstar transfer from Princeton had an underwhelming first two games as a Blue Devil—at least relative to his insane expectations coming into the season—but seemed to play more relaxed Saturday, totaling four goals of his own in addition to two assists.

"I think it settles Michael Sowers down a little bit, because [he and Robertson] live together in the same house, and those guys can talk a little bit," Danowski said of how Robertson's return impacts the offense. "It kind of defines Michael's role a little bit more and it defines [sophomore attackman Dyson Williams'] role a little bit more when Joe's out there."

That doesn't mean everything went smoothly through Saturday's win, though.

After leading 8-1 after one quarter and 13-3 at halftime, Duke (3-0) started to give in a little bit, with Mercer (1-2) hanging around throughout the second half and cutting its deficit to as close as 14-6 midway through the third quarter.

Part of the reason for that was certainly Danowski's choice to start playing around with his rotations and give his bench guys some game action. Another contributing factor was the Blue Devils' 21 turnovers on the afternoon, a number that has to improve before the team gets into the heart of its schedule and ACC play.

But from what we've seen from the Blue Devils in recent seasons, it's safe to assume that there will be a lot of growth between now and then.

"In terms of our offense, I think we're just getting started," Robertson said. "Really just trying to get some chemistry going. It's been a little different with getting guys back from injuries and from COVID protocols. So, getting that to mesh well and getting that chemistry to be consistent is something that we're gonna keep working toward, and I think [we] still have a lot of room to grow in that regard."


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