In an ongoing 14-year Blue Devil lacrosse dynasty under head coach John Danowski, there’s been no shortage of top talent to come through the program.
Danowski, Greer, Crotty, Jones and Guterding all ring familiar as some of the greatest names in Duke history. By the end of May it may be time to add another one: Princeton transfer Michael Sowers, arguably one of the most distinguished players of the last decade.
The Blue Devils were set to return All-Americans, leading scorers and veteran leaders from a top-10 team in 2020. Adding a player like Sowers into the fold? Well that takes Duke from a national title contender to… how in the hell do you stop this team? It’s like taking LeBron James and just dropping him on the Celtics.
“Michael is one of those transformative players that don’t come along very often,” Danowski said.
Sowers’ gaudy numbers at Princeton speak for themselves, backing up the 2020 preseason hype by posting 16 goals and 31 assists in just five games. The Pennsylvania native’s 9.4 points per contest were more than 16 Division I teams. More importantly, Sowers’ production led Princeton to an undefeated start and a No. 3 national ranking.
However, it wasn’t long until COVID-19 sent a storybook senior campaign to a crashing halt. Sowers went from cautioning his teammates to wash their hands and maintain distance after a Saturday game to hearing the news of cancelled Ivy League athletics just a few days later.
“It was devastating originally to think like—senior season, you have this vision of how it’s going to end and then it just abruptly ends for something that’s obviously much bigger than all of us,” Sowers said. “It was frustrating, but at the same time it was one of those things like, 'What can you do?'”
While Princeton was finally back on the national stage, the unfortunate timing of a pandemic didn’t allow Sowers the opportunity to bring old glory back to the once dominant Tigers, who haven’t appeared in an NCAA tournament since 2012.
After it was confirmed that the rest of the lacrosse season would not be played, Princeton’s all-time leading scorer initially wanted to return to the program for a fifth year. Both the Ivy League and the university squashed that hope, however. First, the conference announced it was upholding its tradition of not allowing graduate students to compete in athletics, and then Princeton decided not to allow its athletes to withdraw with the purpose of re-enrolling in the spring semester to preserve their undergraduate status.
Sowers would thus have to find a new home in 2021, and after entering the transfer portal in early April, he had his choice of just about any school in the country. It would have been foolish for Danowski to not place a call for the dynamic playmaker.
“There’s a part of you that says, ‘Well heck, if we don’t recruit him then somebody else will,’ and we’ll be playing against him,” Danowski said.
Coming out of Upper Dublin High School, Sowers had interest in Duke as a potential college destination, but the Blue Devils never developed a serious recruiting relationship with the All-American. But this time around, it was current Princeton offensive coordinator and former Duke staff member Jim Mitchell who got the ball rolling on Sowers’ eventual move to Durham.
With an impressive Princeton degree already in hand, a graduate opportunity at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business stood out academically for Sowers. Coupled with a Blue Devil coaching staff composed of college lacrosse legends and a deep squad capable of a national title run, Duke seemed like a match made in heaven for the former Tiger.
“Just playing for Coach [Danowski],” Sowers said on what drew him to the program. “Getting coached by Matt [Danowski] and Ned [Crotty], two of the best in their own respect to ever do it, both Tewaaraton winners. I wanted to play for a great coach and play for traditionally a legendary program.”
By late April, Sowers had settled on suiting up for the Blue Devils in his final year in college. Though campus life and preseason training was anything but normal once the high-profile transfer got to Durham, the new Duke Outdoor Lacrosse League (D.O.L.L.) gave Sowers his first burn in a Duke uniform, notably with some enthralling matchups against J.T. Giles-Harris, arguably the best defender in the country.
“It’s really cool playing against him,” Giles-Harris said. “Obviously having to change a little bit of what you do to try to stop him because he’s so good. He can get passes off, he can get shots off just about all the time, so seeing that as a defense really helped us. Just preparing for if we see someone like him. I don’t know if we will.”
Thus far, the acclimation has been a smooth process for Duke’s newest attackman. Sowers lives in a house with former Tiger and now Blue Devil Phil Robertson as well as Phil’s younger brother Joe, Duke’s leading scorer in 2019, among others.
“I don’t think that we could be in better hands in terms of the senior leadership and the fifth-year guys really going out of their way to orchestrate all that necessary stuff,” Sowers said.
The Blue Devils certainly have the pieces for an outstanding team, but in different and difficult times outside of the sport, the question is how the pieces will fit together.
Sowers arrives to a deep, talented squad that won’t require him to do everything. And while there isn’t concern about the on-field chemistry of adding a player of his caliber, time will tell if the 2020 Inside Lacrosse Division I Player of the Year will take on a lead dog role, seamlessly fit in the rotation or a mix of both.
“I’m just going to do whatever they need me to do," Sowers said. "For us in general, we have so many talented individual players. It’s going to be up to everybody to put that stuff aside and just play within the framework of the team and play for each other in whatever role that might be.”
It’s unfair to expect Sowers to continue to average the ridiculous nine points per game he achieved back in March, especially amid a loaded Duke squad. However, there are significant milestones around every corner for the new Blue Devil. Tewaaraton winner? NCAA all-time career assists leader? Or even points?
“He truly makes those around him better,” Danowski said. “He’s unselfish, he’s team-oriented. He is a hard worker. He doesn’t take any drills off. He’s just somebody that makes others better. There’s not that many players that you can say that about. There are tons of players who are talented, who are very good at what they do. But Michael is not only talented himself, but he makes those around him better.”
Sowers has proven himself as the best player in college lacrosse, but to cement himself as one of the greatest to ever play, the team-first star is well aware that it all comes down to hoisting the trophy on Memorial Day Weekend.
“You just do your job and the product is going to be really exciting to watch," Sowers said, "Where you just have a bunch of selfless guys who are very talented and are all driven toward the same goal of winning deep into May.”
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