WASHINGTON—President Eisenhower once said that what matters “is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
Evidently, in Brennan O’Neill, Duke has both.
The sophomore attacker dragged a Blue Devil team that has underperformed in recent weeks to a commanding 14-7 win against Towson Saturday in the Capitol Classic Lacrosse Tournament at Audi Field. It’s a lopsided result that, given the full 60 minutes of play, doesn't show that then-No. 14 Duke probably didn’t deserve to win in that fashion.
What you deserve and what you get are different things, though. O’Neill made sure of that.
“That was his best game as a Blue Devil,” said head coach John Danowski.
High praise, certainly, but it’s warranted. Duke (8-3) was toothless on offense for much of Saturday’s clash against Towson (3-5); it took more than 20 minutes to grab its first goal and until the second half to sniff any bit of attacking fluidity, with a rotated trio of O’Neill, Sean Lulley and Joe Robertson looking disjointed against a tough Tiger defense.
Granted, the Blue Devils’ own defense was stifling and Mike Adler was fantastic in cage (he had seven saves in the first quarter alone), but the point stands. If you can’t score goals, you don’t win games.
Fast forward to 12:00 left in the third quarter, and Duke had regained its bite, almost entirely thanks to O’Neill’s ruthlessness. The Bay Shore, N.Y., native hit a hat trick within a few minutes of the second half face-off, streaking past defenders with explosive direction switches and even more explosive rips from outside the crease. He even threw in a between-the-legs shot for good measure to grab his sixth goal of the evening.
“He doesn't want to steal the spotlight from anybody, but nobody is telling him not to shoot,” said Danowski. “We kid around that one day he’s gonna get 10 goals in a game because he's got that kind of skill set.”
Even if it’s not 10 goals, O’Neill grabbed nine points Saturday. Considering the fact that his team as an entity scored 14, that statistic only becomes more impressive.
Of course, this isn’t anything new for the top recruit in the class of 2020. He already has a team-leading 32 goals this season in just 11 games, has logged six hat tricks and is on course to smash his 45-goal tally from last season that helped him win ACC Freshman of the Year and rank second in conference goals, behind only Tewaaraton Award finalist Chris Gray of North Carolina with 49.
Prior to the start of Duke-Towson, more than 10,000 fans packed into Audi Field for a clash between No. 1 Maryland and then-No. 2 Virginia for the day’s highlight event. These are both teams with great significance for the Blue Devils—being the team that topped them in last year’s Final Four and a key ACC rival, respectively—and the occupants of the 2021 NCAA tournament championship game, so if any clash in the country was sure to put on display what elite-level lacrosse looks like, it was this one.
Maryland won by 11, to the surprise of many, but the takeaway was less the result and more a key trend; individuals decide games. The Terrapins’ Logan Wisnauskas had five points, as did Virginia's Connor Shellenberger, and it was the efforts of these two that ultimately kept the game testy for long stretches.
O’Neill outdid them by four points each.
It’s too early to say that Duke is back into title-contending territory—it has to lock up its defense and find an escape from Saturday’s first-half profligacy first—but it has its X-factor.
O’Neill is a phenom and the kind of talent any coach, let alone Division I's winningest, would no doubt love to work with. More than the flashy numbers, recruiting status and profile he carries, however, is his proven ability to be a winner.
Duke needs that mold of player as it looks ahead to a grueling ACC gauntlet which includes five total games against three title contenders (Virginia, North Carolina and Notre Dame) and at least two Tewaaraton Award hopefuls (Gray and Shellenberger). It was “Broadway Joe” Robertson in overtime last year on multiple occasions, and it seems like it’s O’Neill’s turn now. Even if Danowski called Saturday the sophomore's “best game as a Blue Devil,” one can’t help but feel that there’s more to come.
Duke has found its star. Now, it just has to shoot for them.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.