It’s no secret that John Danowski assembled arguably the deepest roster he’s ever had in 2021. Everywhere you look there’s elite talent, some of which helped the Blue Devils to great success in years prior.
Yet, many of those names have been forgotten throughout the season as the world of college lacrosse focused on the embarrassment of incoming riches to Durham. Whether it’s the electrifying playmaking from Michael Sowers or the uber-efficient finishing from Brennan O’Neill, it’s been easy to glaze over returners who have played a larger-than-life role in Duke’s return to Championship Weekend for a third straight season.
You see, when Duke has the ball late in crunch time, it’s no secret which Blue Devil has the ball in their cross. Danowski knows, the other teams know, the moms in the stands know. It’s always with a familiar face—Joe Robertson.
Nicknamed "Captain Clutch" for a reason, the senior attackman feeds off the sudden-death energy late in games. Duke has gone into overtime four times this season... and Robertson has won the game with the necessary goal in three of those games.
But Robertson's impact and journey go a lot deeper than just clutch goals.
It’s hard enough trying to gel a melting pot of returners, grad transfers and high-impact freshmen in normal times, even harder during a pandemic. It’s why Robertson stakes a good claim as Duke’s most important player at times. The final week of the season is upon us and the Blue Devils’ offense hasn’t exactly lived up to the lofty preseason expectations it garnered. But sometimes a calming and talented leader is what the doctor ordered. Robertson has played that role as much as Sowers or anyone else, helping to integrate the new Devils into the system.
“If you ask me any one intangible that you want to have above everything: just give me great team chemistry. And that takes a while to develop,” Danowski said. “I think Joe has been rock solid consistent from his first day back. It’s been fun to watch these guys try to figure out how to play together.”
Robertson’s importance goes far beyond being a clutch goal scorer, including establishing himself as one of the team’s captains. Since March 25, five of Duke’s eight games have been decided by a single goal and keeping the team focused on the moment has been one of the Saint Anne’s-Belfield School product’s biggest impacts. Sowers detailed Robertson’s constant encouragement in Duke’s April 22 comeback win over Notre Dame where the Blue Devils rattled off six unanswered goals to stun the Fighting Irish in overtime.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Robertson said. “It was motivating to see the talent level that was coming in. I’m thankful for that. Once I’m back out on the field and getting to play with these guys, especially [Sowers] and [O’Neill] this year on attack. It’s been so fun and really easy to play with them.”
Robertson didn’t arrive at Duke with many people outside the program expecting immediate results, but the former 3-star recruit didn’t take long transitioning to the college level. As a freshman he tallied 48 goals, second on the team to only Justin Guterding, who entered this season as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer. Robertson followed up that campaign by adding another 42 goals to lead the Blue Devils, who reached the Final Four in both years.
The Virginia native seemed primed to carve his place among the Duke greats heading into his third year before the unthinkable happened—Robertson tore his ACL just days before the start of the 2020 season opener.
“It was devastating,” Robertson reflected. “I don’t think I had ever really missed a practice either in high school or in college. I have never really had a serious injury like that before, which I was fortunate for. But then everything happened so quickly. It was a big shock and really hard for me at first, but I was thankful to be surrounded by a lot of great teammates who just pushed me to get over it and become better through it. I just tried to lean on them throughout the entire rehab process.”
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As the Blue Devils experienced a tumultuous start to the season, Robertson successfully underwent surgery and began the road to recovery in Durham. Any hope of a normal rehab process was dashed with the COVID-19 pandemic. The two time all-ACC Academic teamer suddenly found himself in Florida with his parents, mixing two to three physical therapy sessions a week with other rehab on his own.
“This was at the very beginning of COVID and masking, so it was really weird to be doing PT sessions sweating and wearing a mask,” Robertson explained. “It was really interesting and difficult, but I learned a lot from it and it’s something that I’m actually pretty grateful for.”
Though it wasn’t an immediate return to the field once the fall semester started, where Duke organized an offseason intrasquad league, the rehab process was aided even more with Joe’s brother Phil choosing to play for Duke in his final collegiate season as a graduate transfer. Phil also came from Princeton alongside Sowers, bringing with him an impressive 67 goals in his time as a Tiger. Though the elder Robertson hasn’t seen as much playing time as a Blue Devil, these moments have been special for the brothers, and one of the big highlights came against Virginia with Joe assisting on one of Phil’s five goals this season.
“We’ve always wanted to play together in college but the recruiting process didn’t work out that way in high school,” Robertson said. “COVID was a silver lining for us and this year, getting to play together. Each day we have out on the field, whether it’s practice or a game day is special to me and him. We’re just trying to embrace all the time we have left together.”
As Duke heads to East Hartford with dreams of a fourth national title, it needs its veteran leaders to step up more than ever, especially compared to the veteran presences on the other three squads. Sowers and O’Neill have never played on this stage, so the Blue Devils will certainly look to Robertson and fellow Duke veterans J.T. Giles-Harris and Nakeie Montgomery, who have fallen just short of that final step.
“For us, it’s just about winning the first game,” Robertson emphasized. “Once you get to the championship game, then you kind of start that realization of ‘Hey, you can do this.’ Obviously the first step is getting to the Final Four, which we’re really pumped about. But I think we’re just focused on winning the next game and knocking down the next domino.”
Robertson plans on returning to Duke for a fifth collegiate season and will once again be the face of Duke lacrosse, but right now his focus is on the task at hand. According to the all-time wins leader in Division I history, the Blue Devils couldn’t be in better hands.
“Joe Robertson is probably the most complete Duke attackman—meaning he’s like a coach on the field,” Danowski proclaimed before the season. “He understands exactly what we want. He’s vocal, he’s a leader, a captain.”