'It's been surreal': Jake Naso's improbable rise to stardom for Duke men's lacrosse

Freshman faceoff specialist Jake Naso has been a surprise star for the Blue Devils this season.
Freshman faceoff specialist Jake Naso has been a surprise star for the Blue Devils this season.

The Blue Devils have found a secret weapon where they least expected it this season, and his name is Jake Naso. 

The freshman faceoff specialist currently ranks first in the ACC and fifth in the country with a faceoff winning percentage of .673, while placing second in the nation in total faceoffs won. Following Duke's win against Syracuse March 25, he collected ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors and was dubbed the US Lacrosse Division I Men's National Player of the Week. Even before the game against the Orange, Inside Lacrosse ranked him the No. 6 freshman in the country.

There’s a reason Naso received all that recognition.

In tight games like the ones against Syracuse and North Carolina, Naso has come up clutch against some of the best faceoff specialists in the country, continually putting up dominant performances at the X.

Before the season began, however, he wasn't even at the top of Duke's depth chart.

'We're as surprised as anybody'

Coming into the season, Duke had Xs aplenty. The team returned its primary faceoff specialist from 2020 in junior Jordan Ginder and added graduate transfer Dan O’Connell, who had the nation’s eighth-highest faceoff win percentage in 2020. Frankly, the assumption was that one of those two would end up with the top spot, and head coach John Danowski even admitted to being caught off guard by Naso’s impact.

"We're as surprised as anybody. First game of the season, he took one draw, and he violated…. He wasn't in our plan in early February,” Danowski said following the Syracuse game. “Then through practice, through opportunities early in the season he started coming on, but this is a whole different level.”

Day in and day out, Naso has proven to be an X-factor at X, and has been absolutely crucial to the Blue Devils' near-perfect run so far. 

“I'm just trying to go out there and give my team the best opportunity to get the ball to score,” Naso said in an interview with The Chronicle March 31.

Though his outlook on the game is simple, Naso's position as the X is a little more complicated. Of all the positions in lacrosse, the X sees the least minutes, running off the field immediately after the faceoff, yet can be the most important person to touch the field in close games. Despite the limited playing time, they train extensively to make the most impact in that short amount of time.

For Naso, he emphasised the role of his teammates in preparing him for those moments. 

“[It’s] constant reps with the other faceoff guys...during practice doing little extra things, like analyzing our opponents,” he said.

This methodical approach is par for the course for the position, as the skills required for taking faceoffs are highly specialized and based on reflexes and determination—Naso even draws upon a brief stint in wrestling from when he was younger. The work pays off, though, because a winning faceoff specialist like Naso can turn the tide of a game and is monumental in maintaining possession and offensive momentum.

“It’s a special position,” Naso said. ”Every faceoff is different, every opponent is different…. I fell in love with it.”

X marks the spot

The X's high ceiling of impact makes it a high-stakes role as well. 

Faceoff specialists operate almost entirely in one-on-one situations, and the pressure to perform can be suffocating, or at least, it seems like it should be. Naso, however, says that he knows his teammates will be right there should something go wrong after the whistle. 

“I do get nervous sometimes. But I know that whatever way it goes, my teammates will have my back no matter what,” Naso said. “So there's no real pressure.”

That focused, unflappable attitude is part of what has made Naso such an elite faceoff specialist this season, though the road to getting that role on the team was windy. Even going back to the early years of his lacrosse career, he sort of fell into taking faceoffs by accident. 

“I remember I started at attack, and one time, one game, our faceoff guy didn't show up. So I was like, ‘Yeah, I'll try it,’” Naso said.

Clearly, he excelled, and the New York native ended up the 12th-ranked recruit of the Class of 2020 out of St. Anthony’s High School, which he attended with current Blue Devil teammates Brennan O’Neill and Aidan Danenza.

Securing the starting role once he came to Duke was another story, though. 

Rolling with the changes

Over the summer, the NCAA passed a change in the faceoff rules, prohibiting the use of the overhand “motorcycle” grip and requiring that both players start with their feet on the ground and not on their knees, which many players previously did to gain leverage. 

The entire country had to adjust, but Naso, already facing an adjustment making the jump from high school to college, took the opportunity to buckle down on training and technique. His brother, currently a sophomore at St. Anthony’s, is also a faceoff specialist, and Naso said they worked together in those final months of the summer to help him practice the new rules.

“I found out pretty late…. It was like three or four months before I got to college that they changed the rule…. At first...I was just shocked to see that they changed that much,” Naso said. “Having my brother at home helps me just go in the backyard, go to the field and work on everything by ourselves, make each other better.”

The rule change and his work after it may very well have been what won Naso the starting job over Duke’s several other faceoff specialists. And while Naso's ability to be a major game force flew under the radar, his development and work ethic have been evident to everyone.

“The best word to describe him is he's just like a dog. He's a tough kid, scrapper, doesn't say too much,” Duke's leading scorer Michael Sowers said after the Syracuse game. “He just works...and the results show...and like I said, that's a credit to how hard he works on his own.”

If Naso is anything, he’s adaptable. From rule changes to lineup changes, he’s learned to roll with the punches, and that skill is serving him well in his debut collegiate season. 

“It’s a lot faster. Everyone’s a lot faster,” Naso said of the biggest thing he’s had to adapt to so far. 

Not only that, but the entire college game is different from high school, and Danowski’s system is unlike anything Naso has experienced before. 

“Everyone has to know every position,” Naso said. “At first it was tough. I didn't really know any plays in high school, like any different sets or anything, but here [Danowski] makes you know everything.” 

Old friends and new pals

Sharing the experience with former high school teammates O’Neill and Danenza has certainly helped Naso's transition to the college game.

“It was definitely a comfort at first,” Naso said. “I've known [O’Neill] and [Danenza] for a really long time…. To grow up with them, this whole process has certainly been something special.”

In addition to furthering his bonds with old high school teammates, Naso has gotten to create relationships with his new ones, who have all gone out of their way to welcome all the fresh faces. From the veteran faceoff guys contacting him before the team even returned to campus to all the fun times in practice, the Blue Devils have created a special dynamic that Naso cherishes. 

“Everyone's been super welcoming. The team has a great camaraderie,” Naso said. “It's awesome to be a part of...being with the team, them hyping everyone up…. It's fun. It's a great time.”

His teammates returned the high praise. 

“He is a very, very humble guy, and a really, really hard working guy. So to see his success is something that everyone on the team is happy about,” senior captain Joe Robertson said in an interview with The Chronicle March 30. “And he's well deserving of it…. [It] is really, really cool to see. And I'm really glad to see it.”

Now, as he moves forward with the season, Naso is focused on the team. Ask him any question and he’ll say one of two things: he’s thankful for the team or he’s doing it for the team. But even he, as humble as he is, can’t help but revel in the experience. 

“You know, you've watched these games as a kid. And it's like, I want to do that one day,” Naso said. “And then you get to the point, it's like, ‘Wow, I'm here.’ It's been surreal.” 

Sasha Richie profile
Sasha Richie | Sports Managing Editor

Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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