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'Built to destroy NCAA lacrosse': Inside how Duke men's lacrosse's superteam came to be

Head coach John Danowski has won three national titles in Durham, but this could be his most talented team yet.
Head coach John Danowski has won three national titles in Durham, but this could be his most talented team yet.

Duke men’s lacrosse is not only the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, it's reached “superteam status,” as Inside Lacrosse so eloquently put it.

“An embarrassment of riches,” also per Inside Lacrosse.

“Built to destroy NCAA lacrosse,” according to the LaxFactor lacrosse podcast.

Yeah, I think you get the point. But there’s reason for the preseason hype. 

Thanks to the NCAA’s extra eligibility ruling, Duke brings back every starter from a 2020 squad that finished the shortened campaign ranked No. 8, but showed signs of proving it was even better than that. That group includes fifth-year senior JT Giles-Harris, US Lacrosse Magazine’s Preseason Defenseman of the Year.

The Blue Devils will also welcome the return of senior attackman Joe Robertson, who led Duke in goals and points en route to a Final Four berth in 2019 but missed the 2020 campaign with an ACL tear. He’ll rejoin an offense that, led by stud freshman Dyson Williams, still ranked No. 11 in the country in scoring without him last season.

On the recruiting trail, Duke brings in six top-50 recruits including attackman Brennan O’Neill, the No. 1 overall recruit who’s been labeled a generational talent and “the Zion Williamson of college lacrosse.”

And that’s before we even get to the transfers.

The Blue Devils added five graduate transfers over the offseason, including second-team preseason All-American Mike Adler at goalie, honorable mention preseason All-American Dan O’Connell as a faceoff specialist and—wait for it—attackman Michael Sowers, the consensus top overall player in the country.

Do the first couple quotes make sense now?

While Duke is just days away from beginning this potentially historic campaign, it’s been a long road to get to this moment, one filled with an abrupt ending, an offseason to remember and months of build-up.

A season cut short

March 12, 2020 is a date that will live in infamy for anyone involved in sports, and Giles-Harris is no different.

The 2019 ACC Defenseman of the Year remembers practicing and getting ready for team pictures—two days after destroying Jacksonville 18-8 for the Blue Devils’ fourth straight win—when head coach John Danowski told everyone that the Ivy League had cancelled its spring sports seasons the previous day.

At that point, Giles-Harris said he and his teammates “were a little bit nervous,” especially when they found out while taking team pictures that the ACC had cancelled its men’s basketball tournament.

Then, later that night, it became official.

“We got called in for another meeting at night,” Giles-Harris said. “And we figured we all kind of knew what we were about to hear, but we didn't really want to believe it. And we all sat down in our team room, and we heard...our season was cancelled—or it was postponed indefinitely, but we all pretty much knew that it was cancelled.”

Giles-Harris said it was “a tough moment,” especially given the fact that nobody had any idea the NCAA would later grant spring athletes an extra year of eligibility.

“It was devastating,” Danowski added. “It was emotional. Not just emotion for the season, but for a lot of things. There was just a little bit of fear of the unknown, what was going to happen going forward. And nobody thought that there would be a fifth year, and so at the time, it was extremely emotional, a lot of tears."

What made the news even more difficult to grasp was the manner in which Duke’s previous two seasons had ended. 

In May 2019, the Blue Devils led Virginia 12-10 with less than a minute remaining in the national semifinal. But then, the typically stout Duke defense allowed two Cavalier goals within a 31-second period before losing in double overtime.

A year prior, the Blue Devils made it all the way to the NCAA championship game, where they lost to Yale 13-11.

“I think that for a lot of programs, you have to experience losing in the big games to decide how badly you want to return there,” Danowski said. “And I think that was certainly part of the emotion as well.”

An offseason for the ages

Just over two weeks after that infamous March afternoon, the NCAA announced that spring student-athletes would receive an extra year of eligibility, meaning Giles-Harris and his senior classmates could return to Durham and avenge their two years of heartbreak.

However, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Giles-Harris told The Chronicle in the spring that while almost everyone “wanted to come back,” the allocation of scholarship money was something the program and individual players were still figuring out.  While part of the NCAA’s extra eligibility ruling included the use of the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for the extra scholarships, that money couldn’t be used to pay for everyone.

Nevertheless, by June 12 US Lacrosse Magazine reported that Giles-Harris was “expected to be at Duke all of next year,” and by July 16 the team confirmed the return of the star defenseman in addition to nine other 2020 seniors.

While this was all going on, Danowski and his staff were navigating perhaps the most hectic transfer market they had ever been a part of, one in which schools with an elite combination of a top-tier lacrosse team and elite graduate programs became a prime landing spot for players looking to exercise their extra season of eligibility.

Hence, Duke was a popular option for many.

“There were over 35 students who had expressed an interest to transfer to Duke to play lacrosse,” Danowski said. “We had to say no to a whole bunch. I mean, it was really, really different.”

In the end, the Blue Devils added five graduate transfers to complete their roster, three of which came from the Ivy League and stemmed from the conference’s tradition that graduate students cannot compete in sports, which made transferring the only option for athletes that wanted to use their extra eligibility.

Former Dartmouth defenseman James Sullivan is one member of that trio, though it didn’t seem like that would be the case at first.

“I didn't answer [Sullivan’s] call,” Danowski said. “I loved him on tape, and I thought he was a terrific player. But it was just one more person—at the time we were overwhelmed with all this interest. And [Sullivan] just called up and said, ‘Coach, I'm coming. I don't care. I'd like to try out.’ And he's a great kid. And we love him. But there were others that we had to dissuade. We had to say, ‘No, there's just no room at the end.’”

The other two former Ivy Leaguers hailed from Princeton: best friends and roommates Phil Robertson and Sowers.

Robertson, the older brother of Duke’s Joe Robertson, is a high-level finisher who led the NCAA in shooting percentage in 2018.

Sowers, meanwhile, was the holy grail of the transfer market. The Pennsylvania native enters this season ranked second in NCAA Division I history with a career points per game average of 6.43, and fourth all-time in career assists per game at 3.85. At the time the 2020 season was cancelled, he was averaging a blistering 9.4 points per contest—1.2 points per game ahead of the NCAA single-season record—and was the heavy favorite to bring home the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s top player. His addition is what transformed Duke from contender to superteam.

But those three aren’t the only graduate newcomers.

Duke added two other transfers to round out its historic haul in Adler and O’Connell, both of whom will fill key roles for the team this upcoming season and whose transfers were actually unrelated to COVID-19 or the extra year of eligibility.

Danowski said he had heard during the middle of the 2020 season, before any talk of cancellation, that Adler wasn’t going to return to St. Joseph's the following year. Fast forward to May, and the Blue Devils secured one of the top goalies in the country.

O’Connell, meanwhile, had actually been planning to come to Duke this season since September 2019, after a unique background that saw the Massachusetts spend his freshman year of college only playing club lacrosse at South Carolina before using his first three years of NCAA athletic eligibility at Holy Cross. His abilities as one of college lacrosse’s best faceoff specialists provides yet another unique advantage for the Blue Devils.

However, talent can only go so far. And with so many new faces coming to Durham, Danowski had to make sure his squad learned to embrace one another.

‘There’s no Shooters on Saturday night’

“With the talent we have, the sky is certainly the limit,” Sowers told US Lacrosse Magazine in June. “But for us, it’s about what we’re going to do from September to January that will define us.”

By that, Sowers meant forming chemistry with his new team, something that’s a whole lot harder with COVID-19 restricting campus interaction off the practice field.

To help combat that issue, Danowski formed the Duke Outdoor Lacrosse League (D.O.L.L.), an intrasquad league played on weekends. The D.O.L.L. functioned just like a professional league, with an official draft separating the Blue Devils into two teams, a league commissioner moderating the draft, GMs and coaches on each side and even a trade deadline. 

While the league certainly helped the Blue Devils sharpen their skills on the field—the intense late-game battles between the two teams’ No. 1 picks, Sowers and Giles-Harris, were reportedly quite the spectacle—Danowski said the main goal of the D.O.L.L. was about providing his players something to look forward to each week.

“Our guys live at Shooters. You realize that there’s a social void. There were no football games to go to, no tailgates, no soccer games to go to…. There was no outlet for the guys. There's no Shooters on Saturday night,” Danowski said. “So one of the things that we wanted to provide in the Duke Outdoor Lacrosse League was just an outlet, like a Friday night, Saturday night, something to look forward to and something to do. And that was the number one motivation behind setting it up.”

Giles-Harris added that integrating all the newcomers was also made easier by prior relationships and the transfers themselves.

“It’s pretty easy because they’re all great guys,” Giles-Harris said. “We all kinda—someone kinda knew them before, and once we got there it was kind of like, ‘That’s your boy, that’s my boy, too.’ So that was pretty easy…. I think it’s been going pretty smooth. Like I said, it’s a lot easier because they’re all good guys.”

Best team ever?

There’s no denying it—this year’s Duke squad enters the 2021 season as one of the most hyped college lacrosse teams in recent memory, one that has the talent to be remembered for a very long time. 

But you wouldn’t get that sense from talking to anyone within the program.

“Before the season have no idea,” Danowski said regarding how he thinks this year’s team stacks up against all the teams he’s ever coached. “Without any scrimmages…. I remember one year we scrimmaged Bucknell, and they kicked the tar out of us in the scrimmage. And it woke everybody up. Everybody thought, ‘Hey, man, we can just walk out here and play against Bucknell and beat them.’ And we didn't.

"Until you step on the field, the game is different. You can practice one way and look great in practice, but once the lights are on—unfortunately, there'll be nobody in the stands—but once the lights are on, you don't know how your goalie’s going to react, you don't know if you can win a faceoff. You don't know if all of a sudden the chemistry that you saw in practice becomes every man for himself. I think the excitement is: What could this be?”

That last question is the one on every fans’ mind as well. Could this team go undefeated? Could it become the best Duke team ever? Could it become the best college lacrosse team ever? 

It’s far too early to answer any of those questions. But with the talent the Blue Devils boast, they’re certainly reasonable questions to think aloud.

“We haven’t been through any adversity yet,” Danowski added. “Usually when your team has to get backed up against the wall, then you figure out who they are. I don’t know yet. And I’m curious.”

Another thing this team will have to wrestle with to keep its goals within reach is staying safe off the field. Danowski said that the program administered over 1,700 COVID-19 tests in the fall without a single positive. And while seven members of the team tested positive during winter break while away from the program and two more tested positive upon arriving in Durham from winter break, none have tested positive once they returned to practice.

In short, “the bubble works,” as Danowski put it.

To ensure it keeps working, however, Danowski has emphasized accountability for every individual on the team.

“The buzzwords we’ve been using: discipline, maturity and common sense,” Danowski said. “We’ve been using those since July. I put that on almost every text and every email: discipline, maturity, common sense.”

If the team follows that mantra, and continues to gel on and off the field, the program’s fourth national title is well within reach. And potentially, a whole lot more.

“I think we definitely have the potential to be,” O’Neill said, before pausing. “I don’t wanna say that we’re gonna be one of the greats, but we could be, if we really work well together.”


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