The lights of Koskinen Stadium burned bright for the first time since November as No. 3 Duke opened its season against Robert Morris with a resounding 21-12 victory. Star sophomore Brennan O’Neill led the way with a career-high six goals followed closely by junior Dyson Williams with four, but 14 Blue Devils contributed at least one to the points tally in a comprehensive display of offensive ruthlessness that bodes incredibly well for a season that, like most, will demand it in a stacked ACC.
It was evident from the opening minute that the home team was going to coast to a victory, as O’Neill stormed to a rocket of a finish from close range within 15 seconds and Jake Caputo doubled Duke’s lead 25 seconds later. A third of the way through the first quarter, the Blue Devils had scored five times, all from different players, and the Robert Morris defense was reeling. It didn’t get much better for the Colonials, either, as before the quarter’s close Duke had already jumped out to a 10-3 lead.
“It could have been anybody today,” said O’Neill. “The ball was just whizzing around so fast and anybody who's in that spot would have done the same thing I did.”
After the graduation of leading scorer Michael Sowers last May, all eyes have been fixed on O’Neill. The sophomore attackman earned ACC Freshman of the Year honors, dazzled with his net-tearing shots and was, to most, Duke’s biggest offensive threat heading into tonight’s game. He certainly lived up to that mark, notching a hat-trick in the opening 15 minutes.
One of these came courtesy of an assist from 2021 top recruit Andrew McAdorey, a freshman midfielder who played with O’Neill throughout their time at St. Anthony’s High School in Long Island.
“It's definitely great having someone that I've known for so long that they make me feel comfortable, because obviously, I've been playing with them since like, second grade,” said O’Neill. “So it's really nice.”
Though O’Neill stole the show Friday, Duke’s demolition job wouldn’t have been possible without the equally electric efforts of Dyson Williams in front of cage, Sean Lulley and Joe Robertson’s playmaking, Jake Naso’s faceoff dominance and Mike Adler’s incredible goalkeeping.
Williams put up five points in a resounding performance that cemented his place among the Blue Devil attack despite his forays in midfield last season. Lulley, the assumer of Sowers’ vacant #23 jersey, and Robertson combined for two goals and five assists. Naso won 17 out of the 26 faceoffs he battled and Adler, a goalkeeping revelation last postseason, saved 16 shots to the 12 goals he conceded.
“The defense today was flying around, they were making plays, and I was the person who saw the end of that play,” said Adler. “I think they did a really good job of forcing guys down the alley, making it really tough, but [Robert Morris] was a really good team. So it was a good first game, but definitely a lot to improve on.”
Though Duke’s victory never felt in doubt, conceding goals felt much more likely. Losing a player in the All-American mold of J.T. Giles-Harris certainly hurt the Blue Devil backline, but Adler stepped in to make a flurry of jaw-dropping saves and junior Kenny Brower impressed with his ball-handling and mazing runs, including one late in the second half that saw him dodge long pole after long pole as he raced through midfield.
Even amid sniffs of a Robert Morris comeback in the second half, Duke (1-0) held strong. The offense’s potency acted as its own form of defense Friday, since the Blue Devil’s 15-minute frenzy to open the game combined with a tireless midfield and free-scoring front three mean that if the Colonials (0-1) gave up the ball at all, chances were high the next time they’d grab it would be from their own net.
One of the questions heading into this season was what Danowski’s preferred attacking trio would be, and it seems like we got our answer tonight: an attacking quad. O’Neill started the game alongside Williams and Robertson, but Lulley regularly subbed in to play X (the space behind the goal) and even took a midfield role at times. It speaks once again to the incredible depth the Blue Devils have at their disposal that any combination of the four consistently threatened to score.
“I think since all four of us are so selfless, we don't care who gets the goals or assists,” said O’Neill. “I think we just want to play.”
On the whole, it’s a game Duke fans should be satisfied with. Building up the defense after a star’s departure is never easy, but Will Frisoli, Frank Marinello and Brower at least got some time together on the field and kept the Colonials without a single lead. More encouraging was Duke’s attacking efficiency and the chemistry even a four-man rotation showed. Better than that was the long-awaited return of one of the most thrilling college sports.
“It's a dream come true,” said Adler. “I mean, just having fans, there was something that we missed last year. So that was really neat. In the environment, playing under the lights, it's really cool and we take pride in playing in Koskinen. That's something that just adds a little chip on our shoulder.”
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.