Coming into Saturday, junior Jake Naso had played in 45 career games and won less than 50% of a game’s faceoffs only nine times. A third of those times had come in his three games against Virginia graduate student Petey LaSalla. Despite solidifying himself as one of the nation’s premier faceoff specialists over the course of three years, and despite Duke’s 22-2 record against the Cavaliers since 2005, Naso could not break the curse of LaSalla.
On Saturday, though, he did. In his fourth try lining up against LaSalla, Naso won 21 of 32 faceoffs to help the Blue Devils outlast Virginia 15-14 and keep a 19-year regular-season win streak against the Cavaliers alive.
“He is just a superb athlete. I've known Petey all growing up. We grew up like a couple towns over from each other on Long Island,” Naso said after the game. “He's a great player, both faceoff, offense, defense all around. …. We have great battles against each other.”
Even “superb athlete” may be putting it lightly. Undoubtedly one of the greatest FOGOs to ever do it, LaSalla has 949 faceoff wins so far through his career, meaning that at the end of the year, he will finish, at worst, fifth all-time in career faceoff wins in the NCAA. He is also one of the few Cavaliers to truly have Duke’s number. LaSalla had not only won over 50% of faceoffs in all his previous games against Duke, but he helped send the Blue Devils into the offseason in 2019 by winning the final eight faceoffs of the NCAA semifinal, including two in overtime.
Given the above, it was excusable that Naso struggled against LaSalla; with LaSalla’s unique tactic of winning it forward and going straight to the net, everyone does. Still, Naso’s inability to beat him stood as a rare weakness for a specialist known for his reliability. It never mattered, though, because Duke’s defense was strong enough to withstand the extra Cavalier possessions in games against Virginia.
In the teams’ meeting two weeks earlier, the Blue Devils won 16-14 despite LaSalla’s 20-14 faceoff advantage. The defensive unit limited Virginia to five unique goal scorers, including holding star redshirt junior Connor Shellenberger scoreless, and goalie William Helm made 14 saves to pick up any slack. Simply put, Duke didn’t need Naso to dominate at the X; a serviceable 14 wins was enough to keep the momentum on Duke’s side.
“[The faceoff is] such an interesting part of the game, it's so different from everything else that we do,” head coach John Danowski told The Chronicle. “Sometimes there's way too much emphasis on the faceoff.”
On Saturday, though, the faceoff became a make-or-break part of the game. While the box score was lopsided in the Blue Devils’ favor until the fourth quarter, the goal differential did not really tell the whole story. In the second quarter, in which Duke outscored Virginia 4-2 to take a 10-4 halftime lead, the Cavaliers actually outshot the Blue Devils 12-9. Duke had a hard time setting up its offense and beginning a cycle, instead scoring quickly in transition or looking for box lacrosse-style opportunities around the net. Meanwhile, Virginia, the NCAA’s No. 1 scoring offense, was able to set up and get good looks at the net when they were in the offensive zone. That just didn’t happen often because Naso went 11-of-15 in the first half.
In the second, once Duke’s luck on offense began to run out in the absence of an effective team approach, and once Virginia figured out how better to capitalize on the opportunities it got, Naso’s faceoff wins became crucial for a Duke victory.
“You could say it was everything today,” Danowski said of ending with such a large faceoff advantage. “We scored a couple goals off the faceoff and we were able to keep momentum.”
The key for the faceoff unit was cohesive and aggressive play from the wings. Defender Will Frisoli, long-stick defensive midfielder Tyler Carpenter and midfielders Jack Gray and Aidan Maguire helped corral the ball and box out rushing Cavaliers on faceoffs that were not won cleanly; regardless of how good your FOGO is, most faceoffs are not won cleanly. The quartet also prevented LaSalla from snatching up the ball and racing straight to the net as he is often liable to do.
That was the plan all along, it seems. On the whiteboard in the team’s locker room, under “Team Faceoff,” was just one main bullet point: “Wing Play.” The subpoints: “aggressive, balance, communicate, ‘drop’, sub correctly.” All of those Duke accomplished Saturday, ultimately booning one of Naso’s most dialed-in and clutch performances of the season.
“Those guys played really well on the wings. And I think we're getting more mature on the wings,” Danowski said.
“I think our whole faceoff unit stepped up. I got to credit the wing guys ... and other drawmen as well, pushing me every day in practice,” Naso said. “And really just trying to get better step by step, I think helped us all out in the end in getting the possessions we needed to secure the win.”
With as crazy and nail-biting as Saturday’s game ended up, the faceoff battle was not the most obvious storyline. But it was subtly one of the most important. The little things, the fundamentals are what wins lacrosse games, and as the Blue Devils enter the final stretch of the regular season with an NCAA tournament berth all but guaranteed, those fundamentals matter even more. Naso embodied that, stepping up in one of Duke’s biggest games to shake a major devil off his back and further cement his legacy at the dot.
He does not see it that philosophically, though, denying that he had any major change in mindset to lead to his performance.
“I feel like if you think about it too much, it'll get in your head a little too much,” Naso said. “So, just kind of go out there with a clear head, rely on what you've been working on all week, rely on that teammates [have] your back if you mess up. And yeah, that's it.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.