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'As a family': Buoyed by Michael Sowers, Duke men's lacrosse knocks off High Point in first round

<p>The Blue Devils, while not error-free, are now moving on to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.</p>

The Blue Devils, while not error-free, are now moving on to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.

The mythical hydra: cut off one head and two more sprout in its place. The same could perhaps be said of Duke men’s lacrosse. Though far from a perfect game, the Blue Devils' first-round win against High Point was a clinic in proficiency at every position. 

At Dorrance Field in Chapel Hill Sunday evening, No. 2-seed Duke took on the Panthers, who qualified for the tournament with an automatic bid after winning the Southern Conference, in a rematch of the 27-8 annihilation the Blue Devils brought High Point earlier this season. Though the Panthers improved between then and Sunday, coming into the game on a six-game win streak, the Blue Devils ultimately advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA championship with a decisive 16-10 win, anchored by solid performances all down the lineup. 

If anyone understands the depth of the Blue Devils and what that means for their opponents, it’s the coach of the team that was trying to beat them. 

“In 21 years of coaching, I don't know if I've ever seen a team that's that complete from top to bottom—offensively, defensively, the guys they throw at you at the faceoff X, the goalie was fantastic today. And you know, an unbelievably well coached team and a team that just is about as opportunistic a team as I've ever coached against as well,” High Point head coach Jon Torpey said. 

It’s true. In nearly every metric, Duke dominated, even as High Point kept its foot on the gas and didn’t let the Blue Devils walk away with an easy win. At a glance, Duke outshot the Panthers 43-34, beat them at the X 20-7, picked up 37 ground balls to their 21 and even registered more saves, with graduate goalie Mike Adler saving 14 shots to Panther goalie Parker Green’s 12. But all that you can tell from a box score. 

What you can’t tell is that graduate transfer Michael Sowers, a 2021 Tewaaraton Award finalist and an Inside Lacrosse first-team All-American, was relatively kept in check after going on a four-point tear in the first quarter, only to have graduate student Sean Lowrie pick up his first hat-trick of the season and the Blue Devils finish with nine unique scorers. 

“Those guys, they work so hard in practice and...they played awesome today. We weren't surprised by that; they do it every week in practice. And for them, I think, to have kind of like a coming out party today, it's just awesome,” Sowers said of Duke having some unexpected contributions. 

The box score also can’t show that an aggressive High Point offense, playing with the zeal of a team with nothing to lose, finally broke through in the third quarter, the first quarter of the game during which the Panthers registered more shots on goal than Duke. Despite that, Adler, an Inside Lacrosse second-team All-American, then became a brick wall and made six huge saves, ultimately holding the Panthers scoreless for nearly thirteen minutes in the third despite their best offensive effort of the game. 

Not only did the Blue Devils not have an Achilles heel, but the ground anyone did give up was immediately recovered by their teammates. Everyone on the team had their moment to shine, and everywhere, at every position, Duke was making smart plays and decisions that aren’t obvious on the scoresheet but reflect a depth and solidity carefully crafted over the entire season. 

However, more important than the physical lineup was the mindset that led to everyone stepping up in an elimination game. 

“I think that just having that mindset every single day that, you know, we want one more week together as a group," Sowers said regarding what motivates the Blue Devils to perform. "Like, we love each other, we love this team, and we just want one more week together. And next week is going to be the same thing. You know, just one more week together."

It speaks to the priorities of this team and head coach John Danowski. Instead of workouts or drills, when talking about preparing for this game, the most important one the Blue Devils have played all season, Danowski emphasized team dinners, movie and game nights and a PowerPoint with clips from movies like The Sandlot and Happy Gilmore to bring the team together. 

“[We do] a lot of things as a family and that, I believe, is going to help us. I think it helped us today and it's going to help us going forward,” Danowski said.

Top down, Duke is a family, and that dedication to one another shows all the way from supporting each other with smart playmaking, to Brennan O’Neill celebrating even harder for faceoff specialist Jake Naso’s third goal of the season than Naso himself. Be it talented or stacked or whatever you want to call this team, the Blue Devils demonstrated Sunday that they are selfless and willing to play for and with each other. 

While there were certainly weak spots—clearing was not as solid as one would like to see and the team had some uncharacteristically sloppy turnovers in the second half—the Blue Devils move forward, confident in each other and in their identity as a team. Duke will next take the field for a quarterfinal matchup against Loyola Maryland May 23 in Notre Dame, Ind.

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