Then and now: How has Duke men's lacrosse changed since its first game against Virginia?

Duke players celebrate their road win against then-No.1 Virginia March 31.
Duke players celebrate their road win against then-No.1 Virginia March 31.

No. 2 Duke men's lacrosse is poised for a battle against No. 3 Virginia Saturday afternoon. Ahead of the rematch, the Blue Zone looks back at the first game and previews the upcoming contest:


National title contenders

Two weeks ago, Duke traveled to Virginia, hoping to establish itself as a legitimate title threat. The Blue Devils’ gritty performance did just that, as they knocked off the first-ranked Cavaliers 16-14. On a soggy field at Klockner Stadium, graduate student Garrett Leadmon cemented his breakout status with a hat trick to help power Duke to an early lead, and it never looked back. Senior Dyson Williams added three goals of his own as the Blue Devils’ offense fired on all cylinders for 60 minutes. The win rightly shot Duke to the top of the rankings and put the lacrosse world on notice that there would be no excluding the Blue Devils from this year’s NCAA tournament.   

Lockdown defense

Virginia entered the first bout against Duke sporting the most high-powered offense in college lacrosse, averaging 18.6 goals per game. Redshirt junior Connor Shellenberger had recently won ACC Offensive Player of the Week due to his seven-point performance in the Cavaliers’ defeat of Notre Dame. However, the Blue Devils stepped up to the task and muted the Virginia offense. Senior defenseman Kenny Brower drew the matchup against Shellenberger and held him to just three assists, all on man-advantage situations. Although Jake Naso struggled in the faceoff circle, graduate goalie William Helm stood on his head, saving 14 total shots. His last save, with 32 seconds left, preserved the two-goal advantage and cemented his .500 save percentage on the day. 

Brennan O’Neill for Tewaaraton

The idea that one regular-season game could win someone the award for the best player in men’s college lacrosse is absurd. Brennan O’Neill, however, personified insanity with his nine-point performance against the Cavaliers. On Duke’s first possession, from behind the crease, the junior spun the hapless Virginia defender to the turf and easily slotted the ball near-post into the back of the net. His next goal was as impressive as the first. On the man-up opportunity, he caught the ball from nearly 30 yards out and roofed the shot into the top corner so quickly the Cavalier goalie, Matthew Nunes, had no time to adjust his stick. O’Neill finished his offensive clinic with six goals, fully displaying his unbelievable talent.


Time to rebound

The Blue Devils now have more questions to answer than they did after the Virginia game thanks to their lackluster performance against Notre Dame. Duke stumbled as it suffered at the hands of the second-ranked Fighting Irish 17-12. The offensive creativity that was displayed so beautifully in the rain of Charlottesville, Va., dried up in the heat of the South Bend, Ind., sun. Notre Dame goalie Liam Entenmann played his part, stopping 15 Blue Devil shots. Against Virginia this weekend, Duke must show grit and the ability to fight through adversity. Rekindling the offensive cohesion that made it a force to be reckoned with will be vital in order to re-establish its prowess in the college lacrosse world. 

Matador defense

The most noticeable aspect of the game against the Fighting Irish was the Blue Devils’ first-half defense. Although the unit did not receive much help from the offense, it nonetheless allowed Notre Dame to go on a 7-1 second-quarter run and blow the game wide open. After successfully shutting down Shellenberger, the defense let Fighting Irish senior Pat Kavanagh run wild as he logged a three-goal, five-assist performance. Looking ahead, expect Brower to draw the assignment of covering the Cavalier phenom again. If Duke can find a way to limit the NCAA assist co-leader, the Blue Devils will have a better chance of defending the Koskinen Stadium turf.

Paging O’Neill

It seems as if one game cannot win a man the Tewaaraton after all. O’Neill was shut down by the Notre Dame defense as he was held to just one goal. With its star player basically out of commission, Duke struggled to get the offensive gears going, unable to make the game very competitive down the stretch. In order for the Blue Devils to come out on top against Virginia once more, the Bay Shore, N.Y., native needs to play his brand of lacrosse. While they do not need another heroic performance from O’Neill, they certainly cannot afford for the junior to disappear on them once more.


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