For Duke, it’s now or never.
The fourth-ranked Blue Devils face their biggest test of the season as they travel to face No. 1 Virginia Friday at 5 p.m in Klockner Stadium. The matchup serves as the first of a three-game stretch including the Cavaliers twice and No. 3 Notre Dame, two games of which will take place on the road. Although the challenge seems daunting, Duke is approaching the test with a one-game-at-a-time mentality.
“It’s the biggest game of the year, because it’s the next game,” head coach John Danowski told The Chronicle. “Last week, St. Joseph’s was the biggest game of the year. This is going to be a heck of a run these next three weeks.”
Duke (9-1, 2-0 in the ACC) enters the contest after a balanced 12-9 victory against Saint Joseph’s, in which nine different Blue Devils scored goals. One of the more talented offenses in the country, the Duke attack consists of an embarrassment of riches, led by three former five-stars in Brennan O’Neill, Andrew McAdorey and Dyson Williams. O’Neill, formerly the No. 1-overall recruit, has continued his elite level of offensive production, leading the country in scoring with 52 points and 29 goals. Meanwhile, sophomore McAdorey has thrived in his transition from midfielder to attacker. He is second on the team in scoring with 39 points, and senior Williams leads the team in goals with 33.
In the midfield, freshman Charles Balsamo has surprised many with his instant production and quick adjustment to the college level, scoring 12 goals thus far, while graduate Garrett Leadmon has exploded onto the scene with a career year courtesy of 16 goals and 20 points.
“The key offensively is Matt Danowski, [who] has done a great job of really impressing upon the guys the idea of playing with humility, and not really caring who gets the points,” remarked Danowksi. “And I think you’ve seen a better balance … than we usually have.”
On the other side, Virginia (7-1, 1-0) also boasts an extremely high-powered offense. Led by senior Xander Dickson’s 32 goals, the Cavaliers score in bunches, averaging 18.6 goals per contest. Last week, they reclaimed the title of best team in the country by knocking off then-No. 1 Notre Dame on the road 15-10. Redshirt junior Connor Shellenberger’s seven-point, two-goal and five-assist effort earned him ACC Offensive Player of the Week. Shellenberger possesses elite vision as one of college lacrosse’s best passers, boasting the most assists in the country with 31. The real key to Virginia’s success, however, is its quickness in transition and ability to capitalize off faceoff wins from graduate student Petey LaSalla, who boasts a .587 win percentage.
“They’re very dynamic,” Danowski said of Virginia’s offense. “They like to attack the goal from the faceoff game. Petey LaSalla, he’s a terrific player. So we’ve been practicing for the last three weeks our [offensive] middies playing defense and getting back in the hole.”
An X-factor who could neutralize this strength of Virginia is Duke’s faceoff man Jake Naso. The junior from Holtsville, N.Y., earned a spot on the USILA Team of the Week after winning 68% of his faceoffs across last week’s matchups against Air Force and St. Joseph’s. He also scored a goal and collected three ground balls. Naso now has a .653 win percentage on the year and has helped Duke sustain offensive pressure.
“Jake has been incredibly consistent from day one,” Danowski said. “And that has been impressive.”
Another player who could help create an upset is Duke captain Wilson Stephenson. The graduate student from Greenwich, Conn., has become one of the best defensemen in the country and is the only man at his position to be added to the Tewaaraton Award Watch List since the initial was released during the preseason. The praise is warranted, as Stephenson single-handedly shut down USA Lacrosse Magazine’s D-I Men’s Preseason Player of the Year Sam Handley and scored a goal in Duke’s road victory against Penn. Last week, Stephenson continued his stifling play, forcing three turnovers and scooping six ground balls in a win against St. Joseph’s.
With the eyes of the lacrosse world turning to Charlottesville, Va., Friday night, the Blue Devils have a real chance to cement their status as a team to be reckoned with and a national title contender. Equipped with the offensive firepower to keep pace with the No. 1 team in the country, the onus rests on Danowski and his defense to slow the Cavaliers enough to create the upset.
“We want to play them six-on-six,” Danowski said of his defensive gameplan. “That’s always the goal each week. With only five [games] left, you don’t want to miss any opportunities.”
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