Is there an absolute recipe for a perfect lacrosse team? No. But do the Blue Devils have one that makes Martha Stewart look like an amateur? Yes.
No. 1 Duke earned its fourth consecutive win to open the season Saturday afternoon in a 19-7 blowout at Towson. It was the Blue Devils’ widest margin of victory of the year as well as their most cohesive effort.
So, what are the ingredients to this recipe for success?
First, Jake Naso. The freshman won 21-of-25 face-offs Saturday, and could quickly become the secret ingredient to an already incredible Duke team. Over the long offseason, the NCAA made some pretty big changes to the face-off rules. Previously, players could start kneeling and use a motorcycle grip to gain more leverage over the ball. Now, however, they have to start with both feet on the ground, use a neutral grip and move the ball in a continuous motion. Clearly, Naso’s thriving under these new rules, taking over lead face-off duties for the Blue Devils and winning 68% of his face-offs on the season thus far.
“When you win face-offs it makes such a difference…. The face-off thing sometimes, in our sport, is too important,” head coach John Danowski said after the game.
What he means is that when a team dominates the face-offs, that team dominates possession. You get a goal and immediately get a chance for another goal. With Naso playing as well as he is, Duke (4-0) has a huge advantage that is only amplified by how lethal the Blue Devils’ offense is.
This brings us to the next key piece of Saturday’s win. Duke’s offense has already been fantastic this season, but this time they had an extra boost.
“I think the guys just had a lot of fun today,” graduate transfer Michael Sowers said.
The Blue Devils are as deep as they are talented, with top recruit Brennan O’Neill stepping seamlessly into leading-scorer Dyson Williams’ position, after the latter was one of two players who missed the game due to "health protocols." O’Neill led the team with four goals Saturday, including one behind the back snipe that will definitely end up on highlight reels. Owen Caputo, Nakeie Montgomery, and Joe Robertson all added hat tricks, while Sowers tallied a game-high six points with two goals and four assists.
Sowers and Danowski both credited the chemistry to a good full week of practice and solid possession that allowed them to slow down, take a step back and just have fun with it.
“I do agree with Michael's assessment, Danowski said. “It was a really good week of practice. You know, we had five full days, and I think that was really helpful...going into today.”
The defense also stepped up in a major way. When you think Duke lacrosse, you probably think of the talent at offense, but the Blue Devils’ defense showed Saturday that they’re also a force to be reckoned with. Over the first three periods, they held Towson (1-2) to just two goals in 45 minutes of play.
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While the defense is led by fifth-year graduate student and 2019 ACC Defensive Player of the Year JT Giles-Harris, the rest of the group is largely young and learning how to defend at a college level.
However, with every game, they learn more about how to adapt to certain situations and get in sync with one another. Danowski said that he’s especially happy with their ability to read when to pressure the ball and when to stay back. Surely, the more they play, the better the defense will get, and we’ll see more strong performances like Saturday’s.
The final ingredient, and a bit of a cherry on top, was goaltender Mike Adler. When he’s on, he’s simply phenomenal. With the strength of the rest of the team, Adler won’t always face a lot of shots, but when he does you can be sure he’ll stop the majority of them.
Adler played the first three periods and was nothing short of a brick wall, allowing just two goals on 10 shots on goal. While consistency from game to game has been a challenge for the St. Joseph’s transfer this season, when he’s on the opposing offense has virtually no shot.
All together, these pieces are adding up to better performances each game for the Blue Devils in what should be a scary sight for the rest of college lacrosse, because every good cook knows that recipes are perfected over time.