Despite it being one of the most frigid days of the year, despite what seemed like most of Durham congregating in K-Ville for College GameDay, despite their team playing the preseason fifth-place team in the ASUN, Blue Devil fans came out in full force for Duke’s season opener. And the Blue Devils did not disappoint.
A strong first half powered No. 8 Duke past Bellarmine 19-7 to open the 2023 season Saturday at Koskinen Stadium, the Blue Devils winning each of the first two quarters 4-0 powered by a haul from Dyson Williams, a hat trick from Andrew McAdorey and braces from Brennan O’Neill, Charles Balsamo, Garrett Leadmon, Owen Caputo and Liam McLane. The combination of the cold and the noon faceoff proved little deterrent for a Duke team coming off a down year, as it won nearly two-thirds of the game’s faceoffs and forced the Knights into almost as many turnovers (27) as they had shots (29). The Blue Devils have now won eight of their last 10 season openers.
“Our mentality, as an offense, we know that the better we are as one, the better everyone is themselves,” said O’Neill. “So, we just have a great unselfish group this year—not that we haven't had that [in the past]. But this group this year is flying all over the place, we're moving the ball, we're just making the right plays … Usually you don't expect that from a first game, and I think we're off to a really good start. And it's really fun to see.”
The Blue Devils came into 2023 with a lot of question marks, but O’Neill, Williams and McAdorey did their best to put the Duke attack past any and all doubt. The former became the fastest player in program history to reach 100 goals, adding five assists for good measure; the latter pair combined for seven goals on 18 shots, despite McAdorey making his attack debut after playing in the midfield last year.
“Brennan's skillset is incredibly unique to our sport—not only is he big, strong and fast, but his lacrosse skills are just unique,” said head coach John Danowski. “He's grown every year. You can see the growth in him: today he had five assists, I don't know that he would have gotten five assists as a freshman.”
It wasn’t a spotless performance, though. O’Neill and Williams combined for nine turnovers, as there the early-season rust was clear. More than a couple of times, the Blue Devils were forced to shoot just to beat the clock after O’Neill spent long spans shuffling behind the net, waiting for an open cutter.
But these are the issues you expect from a team with significant turnover in its first game of the year, especially one running out different personnel than in prior years. Danowski is relying on the offensive talents of O’Neill, Williams and McAdorey to allow him to get away with playing extra midfielders. With how well McAdorey performed in his first game at attack, and the nation’s No. 2 recruit in Balsamo notching his first two career goals before the bench emptied, Duke’s status as an elite offense appears to be secure for another year.
“You never know what to expect out of a team until you go up against another opponent on gameday,” said O’Neill. “So we had no expectations, and we just wanted to play the right way and do the right things right. Fundamentals, getting [ground balls]—we harp on all these little things that eventually lead to a successful day, and I thought we executed our plan pretty well.”
The Blue Devil defense may not have the same star power as the offense, but the main units had a remarkable afternoon in their own right. William Helm, a transfer from Division III St. Lawrence, started his first game in Division I and recorded a great .667 save percentage and a first-half shutout. There were some moments when it was clear Duke had room for growth. But for a group that struggled at times last year, it was a chance to start the season off on the right foot.
“It was really special,” Helm said of his first start at Duke. “Pretty surreal experience being on Koskinen. Appreciate the coaches for having the level of trust in me and I really just had a great time. It was like a fever dream almost, but being out there was … definitely one of the coolest sports experiences I've ever had in my life.”
The Blue Devils stay at Koskinen Stadium for their next game, against High Point at 7 p.m. Tuesday, before traveling to Jacksonville, Fla., to take on the 18th-ranked Dolphins in Duke’s first true test of the year.
“I thought we got a lot of positives out of today,” said Danowski. “Just a beautiful day, and great to play.”
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