EAST HARTFORD, CONN.—After surviving five one-goal wins since late March, the signs didn’t exactly point to a blowout loss for Duke on lacrosse’s biggest stage.
The so-called “potential superteam” never seemed unbeatable throughout the year and was more than susceptible to losing in a Final Four that included all four of the tournament’s top seeds. But when the Blue Devils boast the National Defensive Player of the Year, a Tewaaraton finalist, eight total All-Americans and the winningest coach in Division I history—it was always championship or bust for Duke, who looked anything but super in the semifinals.
The Blue Devils' luck ran out Saturday at Rentschler Field as No. 3-seed Maryland, a team that rivals in talent, ended No. 2-seed Duke's season with a display of a program peaking at the right time. Tewaaraton favorite Jared Bernhardt’s five goals and two assists from every angle on the field finally put an end to the Blue Devils' quest for an all-time season.
Now, there has never been more talent in college lacrosse than the 2021 season. With returning seniors and high-impact transfers all over the country due to new NCAA eligibility rules, hindsight is 20/20 for labeling just one squad a superteam. But as Duke refused to succumb to top-five team after top-five team over the course of the season, the sport’s landscape was just waiting for a click into gear that never came.
“We made some plays that we didn’t pay attention to detail, which you need to do in a championship series,” head coach John Danowski said on his team falling flat. “You need to be on, every aspect of the game.”
The wealth of talent amidst the Blue Devils this year was undeniable. How could you not have such high expectations? One of the greatest scorers in the history of the sport, the No. 1 overall recruit, the team’s 2019 leading scorer and 2020 leading scorer. Duke had former All-Americans at midfield and on defense. What seemed like the only big question marks coming into the season, faceoffs and goaltending, turned into strengths with who turned out to be some of the best in the country at those positions.
“That’s a lot of respect to Duke and Notre Dame’s offenses,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said. “We kind of joked at the beginning of the week it was like getting ready for the NBA All-Star team, like the Western All-Stars. Just so many good players out there that were dangerous.”
The puzzle box wasn’t missing any pieces, they just didn’t fit together in time.
Things were especially gruesome offensively Saturday as the Terrapins flexed their superior athleticism to keep Duke’s stars at bay. Before a 10-2 Maryland run over the game’s final 33 minutes put a stamp on things, the Blue Devils continued to scrap behind Mike Adler’s consistency between the pipes and sloppy play from Tillman’s squad. Duke found offense early off broken plays and impressive individual efforts, though the score became lopsided once Maryland realized the lack of purposeful ball movement from its opponent.
The Blue Devils rolled to success this season with a handful of effective scorers who worked best as offensive initiators. Duke’s individual talent pushed it to wins against a lot of great lacrosse teams, but the team ultimately didn’t have the continuity to reach the next level.
“A lot of guys who come out of high school or different programs, they were good players because they had the ball in their stick,” Danowski explained. “Learning to play off the ball. We’re talking about Jared Bernhardt and he’s a fifth year senior. He’s been in their program for five years. He’s very comfortable with his teammates, very comfortable with those guys around him. They all feed off each other.
“You have someone like Brennan O’Neill, who is learning a new system, and Michael Sowers learning a new system. [Joe Robertson] coming off knee surgery and missing the first two games of the year. Midfielders, nobody really out played each other in practice. So they were all good players, but we were searching for a little bit of depth. But at the end of the day, we couldn’t really run past anybody on Maryland.”
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It’s a different kind of disappointment for the Blue Devils to have the dream of a national championship crushed in a game where the outcome seemed seldom in doubt, rather than one that was heartbreakingly close. Yet behind the shadow of the semifinal loss was a season filled with accomplishments—from individual honors to an ACC title filled with all top-10 teams to a return to Championship Weekend for a third consecutive season.
Emotions were heavy as the clock wound down Duke’s season with a nine-goal deficit, though the team made it a point on the sidelines to keep fighting.
“We brought it up that we’re never going to give up,” team captain Terry Lindsay emphasized. “That’s an ethos of Duke lacrosse. Never give up.”
Some important Blue Devils will depart, some important Blue Devils are set to return and Danowski should have Duke back on this same stage in the near future. That time will only tell whether or not this painful loss was the necessary fuel to bring home a fourth national championship.