Column: After top-ranked triumph at Virginia, Duke men’s lacrosse is a proven title contender

Andrew McAdorey (2) and Brennan O'Neill (34) in No. 4 Duke's Friday win at No. 1 Virginia.
Andrew McAdorey (2) and Brennan O'Neill (34) in No. 4 Duke's Friday win at No. 1 Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—In comparison to the frigid, wet concourse mere steps away, full of disappointed Virginia fans, the Duke locker room was a hot, humid, celebratory mess. 

Graduate goalie William Helm tentatively took off his cleats and slipped on sneakers, careful to not step in the mottled, soaked clumps of grass caked to the floor. Each player’s white Dri-Fit shirt was nearly transparent from hours worth of rain and carefully drawn eye black ran sloppily down sweaty faces. Smiles abounded nonetheless.

Friday evening’s bout between No. 4 Duke and No. 1 Virginia — a 16-14 Blue Devil win — had all the markings of a classic. Maybe the two best teams in the country? Two of the nation’s best coaches? Two Tewaaraton Award nominees squaring off? Check, check, check.

And while the 60 minutes of play in many ways resembled the less-than-ideal conditions outside — I started keeping a “slip tally” for each quarter because players were falling over so much — the 10-15 minutes after all was said and done, when players high-fived traveling fans and excitedly bounced into the locker room, say far more.

“It feels great,” senior defender Kenny Brower said on the win. “But I mean, we're gonna see [Virginia] again in two weeks, so we gotta keep our composure and just stay calm, not get complacent and keep getting better. ”

For a Blue Devil unit less than a year removed from an unceremonious exclusion from the NCAA tournament, this win, perhaps more than its other nine, tells us where Duke really stands.

The Blue Devils are a contender. Plain and simple.

Though each cog of the Duke machine ran efficiently Friday, from an all-around excellent defensive showing to crucial goals in midfield by Garrett Leadmon, junior attackman Brennan O’Neill stole the show. Six goals and three assists is an astounding stat line regardless of the context, but to do it against the No. 1 team in the country and fellow Tewaaraton hopeful Conor Shellenberger is ridiculous.

Now, did this game win O’Neill the Tewaaraton? Who knows — awards are finicky. But, what is undeniable is that in a high-profile showdown between two of the country’s top players, O’Neill supercharged his team to victory while Shellenberger’s influence was muted at best.

With a performance like that, especially compared to Shellenberger’s quiet showing, there is certainly a case to be made.

“None of us have ever thought in those terms,” head coach John Danowski said of O’Neill’s chances of winning the Tewaaraton. “It’s always team-first. At the end of the year, if a group of people decide that somebody should get a trophy, then that’s wonderful. But right now, this team, I really think they like each other and they enjoy being together.”

That chemistry shows. O’Neill is clearly the jewel in Duke’s crown, but his exceptional play is a direct byproduct of a system carefully constructed to allow for it.

The Blue Devils of two years ago, featuring All-American defender JT Giles-Harris, midfielder Nakeie Montgomery, showstopping goalie Mike Adler and an attack featuring veteran Joe Robertson, Michael Sowers — one of college lacrosse’s all-time greats — and a freshman O’Neill had all the pieces, on paper, to win the national title. And yet, that group floundered and was dumped out of the Final Four 15-6 by a Maryland team with half the firepower and twice the chemistry.

Looking at this year’s contingent, the star power is still there. But, more importantly, the synergy is, too.

Duke’s goals against Virginia were hard-earned and well-worked. O’Neill logged a couple by rounding the crease and slotting the ball in at superhuman angles. Dyson Williams further proved his merit as a lethal finisher from close range with a hat trick. Leadmon, a surprise source of goals from midfield, was clinical and merciless from long range. 

Because of a back-to-front fluidity that has escaped these Blue Devils for a few years now, Duke bombarded the top offensive team in the country and never trailed, working its way to an important win that all but guarantees its NCAA tournament position and may well have it sit atop the polls come Monday.

“[The Cavaliers are] uber talented,” Danowski said. “They made it look easy at times. They just threw the ball inside or they ran past us. But I thought that the guys did a good job of just defending each sequence. Meaning, forget about what happened last time, let's make the next play. And I thought overall, we did a pretty good job of having a very short memory.”

Regardless of Danowski’s insistence that his team has a short memory for mistakes, this win should be remembered for a long time.

There are many questions we ask of championship-caliber teams. Can they win ugly? Can they win when conditions are bad and crowds are hostile? Can they, to use an age-old sports cliche, beat the best to be the best?

From what Duke showed in Charlottesville, against one of the favorites for the national title, behind a performance for the ages by O’Neill and under a system maximizing the talent of a mercurial group, I’d argue that we have the answers.

Emphatically, yes, yes and yes.


Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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