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Take of the week: Duke men's lacrosse is realizing its all-star potential

Goalie Mike Adler registered a career-tying 20 saves against Virginia.
Goalie Mike Adler registered a career-tying 20 saves against Virginia.

A month or so ago, it looked like the writing was on the wall for the Blue Devils.

A series of heartbreaking, upset losses had many, myself included, questioning this roster’s outlook. Duke’s defeat to Jacksonville was surprising, and its subsequent loss to Penn was disappointing. But the hammering following these losses at the hands of Loyola Maryland kickstarted a difficult March stretch that led to a drop in rankings on the national table.

However, when the Blue Devils played North Carolina, they flipped a switch. The same day the men’s basketball team fell to the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament in New Orleans, the men’s lacrosse team slapped North Carolina by nine in Chapel Hill.

Sophomore attacker Brennan O’Neill, a recently named Tewaaraton Award Nominee, contributed a career-high seven goals against the Tar Heels. Graduate midfielder Nakeie Montgomery chipped in with a hat trick and an assist, while Joe Robertson notched five points on two goals and three assists. Dyson Williams and Andrew McAdorey also contributed big performances for the team, combining for the other three scores.

It was a comprehensive team display amid a series of games that lacked that dynamic.

Though a single-goal loss at home to then-No. 16 Notre Dame right after stung, the spectacle these Blue Devils put on five days later more than made up for it. Staring down the genuine possibility of a missed NCAA Tournament, with their backs against the walls once again, Duke ripped then-No. 6 Virginia—the top team in the ACC—to pieces, running out as the 17-8 victors.

The standout stories of that win were, of course, O’Neill’s career-best four assists and four-goal showing, freshman Reed Landin’s second consecutive hat trick and graduate student goalie Mike Adler’s impressive career-tying 20 saves. Add a confident defensive line led by junior Kenny Brower and senior Wilson Stephenson, which featured traditional long-stick midfielder Tyler Carpenter, and it felt like Duke had found its recipe for success.

In other words, Duke had another team display in the books.

This was not always the case last year. Despite a strong defense led by All-American JT Giles-Harris and a firing attack line that featured O’Neill, Robertson and graduate transfer Michael Sowers, who chipped in with 81 points across the season, Duke couldn’t get ahead. Sure, it won the ACC and finished with a 14-3 record, but the crew didn’t accrue a single conference victory by more than one goal or without overtime. It was a group reliant on the individual brilliance of several individuals, and for the most part, it worked when they needed that spark.

But sparks light fire, and the Blue Devils constantly struggled to keep those embers burning when they needed them aflame. As a result, Duke eked by High Point and Loyola before a Jared Bernhardt-led Maryland sent Danowski and company packing in the NCAA Tournament. It was a disappointing exit for a group billed as a superteam.

If the wins against North Carolina and Virginia—and even the narrow loss to Notre Dame—this year are any indication, it feels like Duke’s spark is finally catching once again. The individual efforts of O’Neill and Williams are spearheading a relentless offense that has won its two ACC games by a combined 18 goals. On the other side of the field, Brower’s reinvented defensive line and Adler’s impeccable form have shut up shop remarkably well, falling short on just five combined saves in the Blue Devils' two conference losses.

While the Blue Devils are not yet a postseason lock, their early-season struggles feel further in the rearview than they have at any other point this season. The defense is clicking, the offense is firing and the midfield is facilitating. It’s a mile from the Blue Devil team of a month ago—and that’s encouraging.

As another date with North Carolina looms, this time May 1 at Koskinen Stadium, this group looks hungrier and more dangerous than it has all season. More than either quality, though, this group looks like a team. If it again plays like one, as I imagine it will, I have no reservations in confidently saying that these Blue Devils are back among the nation’s deadliest, most talented squads.

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