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'The stage that you dream about': Duke men's lacrosse set to begin ACC gauntlet against No. 4 Syracuse

Star transfer Michael Sowers is tied for fifth in the country in assists per game.
Star transfer Michael Sowers is tied for fifth in the country in assists per game.

Six games. Six potential top-10 matchups.

The ACC gauntlet is finally here for Duke men's lacrosse.

The second-ranked Blue Devils take on No. 4 Syracuse Thursday at 7 p.m. in Koskinen Stadium to begin their conference schedule. While Duke has already played and defeated three ranked opponents this year, including No. 7 Denver, the ACC is just a different beast.

"The older guys on the team kind of talk about it a lot, but you just kind of feel a little bit of a different intensity in the air in practice, different energy, different vibe," graduate transfer Michael Sowers said of entering ACC play for the first time. "And being a fan of the sport and watching from an outside perspective, these ACC games—you kind of know that anything can happen. They're probably going to be a one-goal game, there's going to be some crazy swings, especially when you're playing a team like [Syracuse] that can swing the ball. Their stick work's unbelievable. There's going to be some highlight-reel plays. 

"Just as a fan of the sport and somebody that's always enjoyed the sport, this is the stage that you dream about playing on. You go to play college lacrosse to play in a game like Duke-Syracuse."

A unique aspect of this conference slate for the Blue Devils (8-0, 0-0 in the ACC) is that a large chunk of their starting lineup has never played in an ACC game, and that's not just because of transfers like Sowers and star freshmen like Brennan O'Neill. Last season was cut short a little over a week before Duke was set to take on Syracuse in the Carrier Dome to begin conference play, and even head coach John Danowski is curious how his team will perform when the lights shine bright.

Danowski said before the season began that he'll need to see his team—one of the most hyped Blue Devil groups ever—face some adversity before he'll be able to tell what kind of potential it has. Thursday night's matchup might just do the trick.

"This is the next step," Danowski said Wednesday regarding whether he's been able to evaluate his team's potential through nonconference play. "Not to belittle any former opponents, but the intensity, the emotion, the excitement, the adrenaline—it's just very different. And I believe all athletes for this year have been somewhat battle-tested [with] their sense of discipline and commitment through the pandemic, through staying healthy and following protocols and doing their best to try to mitigate the virus. So in some ways they have been tested in that respect. And the hope is that the joy of just playing and competing trumps everything, and so it'll be interesting. I think I'm as curious as anyone else about [Thursday] night."

Even in the loaded ACC, with all six of the conference's teams ranked in the top nine of Inside Lacrosse's latest media poll, a matchup against Syracuse (4-1, 1-0) stands out.

When the 2020 season was cancelled, the Orange were an undefeated 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country. They returned a majority of that roster this season, entering the 2021 campaign with the most preseason All-ACC team and most preseason first-team All-American selections of any school. There's a reason that, despite Duke's immense hype, Syracuse was actually picked to win the ACC in the Preseason Coaches Poll.

The Orange have talent across the board, but perhaps the most dangerous part of their roster is their midfield. Syracuse boasts three different midfielders on the Tewaaraton Award watch list in junior Brendan Curry, redshirt sophomore Tucker Dordevic and senior Jamie Trimboli. That trio will be one to watch out for on the offensive end Thursday.

"Their kids play with a tremendous confidence," Danowski said of Syracuse. "The kids love to go to Syracuse, they love to play for the Orange. They just play with this freedom and this swagger—you can't duplicate that. You can't imitate it, you can't duplicate it, but they have it. It's real."

It'll be tough to fully prepare transfer goalie Mike Adler for Syracuse's offensive firepower, but Danowski has taken a unique approach in practice to do the best he can.

"[Adler's] never seen shooters like he's gonna see [Thursday] night," Danowski said. "That's gonna be a first for him. And we tried to line up the other day with tennis balls at about 10 yards away and just fire him at him as hard as we could to simulate—we don't have guys who shoot the ball like the Syracuse guys. So we need to try to figure out how to simulate that kind of shooting that he's going to see."

In a game between two teams as talented as Duke and Syracuse, though, sometimes it simply comes down to who wins the face-off battle. And with that, freshman Jake Naso will be key for the Blue Devils.

Naso didn't come into the season as the expected starter, and went out for just one face-off in Duke's opener against Denver, but has since broken out and become one of the best face-off specialists in the country. He currently ranks 12th nationally with a winning percentage of .655.

Overall, the Blue Devils' last three games against Syracuse dating back to 2017 have all been decided by one goal, with the Orange winning all three of those matchups. Danowski and company will look to snap that losing streak Thursday night, and then look to the next one as Duke marches through its grueling ACC slate.

"It's got to be one game at a time," Danowski said. "It's got to be about getting better. We want to be better than we were the last time out, and that's all you can ask."

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