CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—A trip across North Carolina’s northern border brought some of the harshest conditions lacrosse has to offer. A dark, windy sky dumped rain onto the field at Klockner Stadium, and gameplay floundered on the sopping grass.
But stars require neither sunshine nor blue skies to shine, and as the fourth-ranked Blue Devils knocked off No. 1 Virginia 16-14 Friday evening, that’s just what the tandem of junior attacker Brennan O’Neill and graduate goalie William Helm did.
“To be honest, I didn't even know they were No. 1,” O’Neill said after the game. “Don’t, didn't look at the rankings or anything, scoreboard didn’t have it. So I mean, it feels great. But we knew they were really good. And now we’ve got to play them again in two weeks.”
The Cavaliers came out thirsting for blood in the second quarter, immediately pressuring Helm, but the Blue Devils (10-1, 3-0 in the ACC) were saved from an equalizer by the post. Then, Duke scored four unanswered, including one scored and one assisted by O’Neill, to take a 7-2 lead.
That wasn’t the start, nor was it the end, of O’Neill’s eventual nine-point contribution to the final tally.
Curling out from behind the goal, O’Neill shoved a close-range shot past Cavalier goalkeeper Matthew Nunes to open the scoring. Next, he connected with midfielder Garrett Leadmon to go up 2-1. After Virginia (7-2, 1-1) finally got on the board, he picked off a clear attempt to start what ended up becoming Duke’s third scoring possession, making clear that his potentially Tewaaraton-worthy talents go beyond goals.
“None of us play, none of us here have ever thought, think in those terms,” head coach John Danowski said when asked if O’Neill could have an MVP award in his future. “You know, 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.”
The Blue Devils’ Achilles heel to start was Virginia’s ride. The rain added an element of unpredictability and the quarter as a whole was sloppy. Duke failed two clears in the first period, the second of which resulted in a Cavalier goal. Turnovers didn’t help, with the Blue Devils more than doubling Virginia by midway through the second, and Jake Naso struggled at faceoff against veteran Petey LaSalla, going 6-of-16 in the first half and 14-of-34 in total.
Helm helped soften the blow of the extra Virginia possessions, tallying six saves in the first quarter alone, which ended up being just enough to give Duke a 3-2 lead at the first buzzer.
By the end of the night, the St. Lawrence transfer had played perhaps his best game as a Blue Devil. His 14 saves did not meet the season-high 19 he logged against Penn, but time and time again, he stepped up to stop the No. 1 scoring offense in the country, often from point-blank range.
“Here's a guy that a year ago was playing Division III lacrosse. And now he's playing in the Duke-Virginia game on ESPNU on a Friday night, and he certainly held up his end of the bargain,” Danowski said.
Virginia did not quit, though. Unlike Duke’s balanced, patient scheme, the Cavaliers’ offense tended to capitalize on quick, tic-tac-toe plays, with the scorer touching the ball for barely a second. This paid off to the tune of six Payton Cormier goals and four for Xander Dickson, two of Virginia’s best near-crease finishers, through the squad’s opening nine goals. The duo was ultimately what gave the Cavaliers a shot. Virginia crawled back on the duo’s backs to only trail 8-6 at the break, and rode that wave in the second, especially as Tewaaraton Award contender Conor Shellenberger was held scoreless.
However, if Dickson and Cormier kept their foot on the gas in the third, O’Neill took off down the straightaway. He completed a hat trick with his trademark rocket from far out early in the period, then added another snipe to keep the Blue Devils ahead by two.
After a Leadmon goal, O’Neill faked the same sort of shot but then dodged his defender to slide within 10 feet of the goal and beat Nunes. Dickson tallied yet another goal right after, and despite a point-blank Helm save on a Virginia opportunity in transition, the Cavaliers got within one after back-to-back goals during a one-minute unreleaseable on senior defender Kenny Brower. Shellenberger assisted both for his first points of the day.
Some back-and-forth ensued, and Helm dropped to the ground to save a LaSalla shot right off the faceoff then immediately reached up to deflect the rebound from seated. The Blue Devils looked for some transition offense of their own, as defenseman Will Frisoli collected a long bounce pass from sophomore midfielder Jack Gray off the clear and immediately put it in the open net from 30 yards out.
“We worked on [transition offense] the whole week. I mean, they're a great team at making it up and down; we know that's their game. So we just knew we had to bring it in that area,” Brower said.
While the Cavaliers made a push in the fourth, they ultimately couldn’t crack Duke’s shut-down defense. After O’Neill scored his sixth and final goal with a low-angle solo effort, to go along with three assists, the Blue Devils’ defensive corps took over, as Brower, Wilson Stephenson and Tyler Carpenter held off any last Cavalier hope for a comeback.
“I don't know that we learned it from the Navy SEALs, but we steal it from them: You don't rise to the occasion, you fall back on your fundamentals. And when the weatzher is sloppy, or the opponent is terrific, and they're very talented, you've got to rely on your foundation. And I thought today that we did that a lot.”
The work isn’t done for Duke, however. On April 8, it faces No. 3 Notre Dame on the road, with Virginia on the docket again the week after. But with a statement win under their belt, the Blue Devils certainly have the momentum to come prepared.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.