The stage is set, and what a stage it is.
At noon Saturday, the four most elite teams in college lacrosse will whittle themselves down to two, with a Memorial Day matchup for all the marbles on the horizon. On one side, ACC foes Virginia and Notre Dame will fight for a spot in the title game, while on the other, the first-seeded Blue Devils face a fit-and-firing Penn State team on the heels of a regular-season Big Ten title.
After missing the field in 2022, Duke has shaken its demons of yesteryear in 2023, winning a stacked ACC outright, taking down the likes of Penn, Denver and Loyola in between and wrapping up the season as the consensus national No. 1. With the All-American trio of defender Kenny Brower, FOGO Jake Naso and attackman Brennan O’Neill providing the back-to-front spine of a Blue Devil team oozing with talent, Duke has all the pieces necessary to grab its two most significant wins of the year when it matters most.
The Blue Devils are no strangers to the bright lights, and Saturday’s showdown in the City of Brotherly Love is yet another in a long series of Final Four appearances. Duke sits among the last four for the fourth time in the last five national tournaments, looking to avenge a title loss to Yale in 2018, a semifinal loss to the Cavaliers in 2019 and a 2021 semifinal thumping by Maryland. Sixty minutes of lacrosse Saturday and potentially a further 60 Monday will determine whether that revenge is realized, but one thing is for certain either way — this team is one to watch. -Andrew Long
Players to watch
Anyone tuning into the game Saturday knows to watch O’Neill, who was recently named USILA Player of the Year after leading the nation in total points with 91, the only player so far to surpass 90 points. Aside from the remainder of Duke’s first-team All-American trio — Naso and Brower — fans should also watch defender Will Frisoli and long-stick defensive midfielder Tyler Carpenter, a do-it-all duo that scoops up ground balls and catalyzes the attack as part of the faceoff unit then runs across the field to support the Blue Devils’ lock-down defense.
However, the link that could make or break the chain, and thus the most important player to watch on the Duke side, is graduate goalie William Helm. As a transfer from Division III Saint Lawrence, Helm, it’s safe to say, has not faced lights quite as bright as the ones that will shine at Lincoln Financial Field. That hasn’t phased him before, though. In the Blue Devils’ nationally televised games against Virginia, Helm posted 14 and 12 saves, respectively, including herculean fourth-quarter performances, and he earned a .636 save percentage in last week’s quarterfinal against Michigan. Still, Helm has had his fair share of struggles, including getting pulled in favor of graduate Andrew Bonafede in Duke’s regular-season conclusion against Syracuse. Which version of Helm touches down in Philadelphia could be the deciding factor this weekend.
Dueling Helm Saturday is Penn State goalie Jack Fracyon, a second-team All-American. The sophomore made 14 saves per game, sixth in the NCAA. In the Nittany Lions’ quarterfinal nailbiter against Army, Fracyon saved 11 shots to nine goals against for a save percentage of .550, and he could be what Penn State needs to balance out Duke’s comparative advantage offensively. Meanwhile, graduate attackman TJ Malone leads Penn State in scoring with 65 points atop 33 goals and 32 assists, earning an honorable mention nod. Brothers Jack and Matt Traynor are the next two biggest scoring threats, possessing the Nittany Lions’ second- and third-most points across the season. -Sasha Richie
Keys to success
While always important, goaltending and faceoffs become especially crucial in the postseason. Duke has the advantage at the dot, with Naso leading the tournament’s remaining FOGOs in win percentage by, at a minimum, 6.8%. He specifically leads both of Penn State’s specialists, Chase Mullins and Hudson Bohn, by 16.1% and 17.9%, respectively. If Naso performs as he usually does, that is to say exceptionally, Duke should have the possession advantage it needs for its formidable offense to work its magic and help it advance to the national final. However, that is dependent on the Blue Devils getting the saves they need when Penn State inevitably goes on runs. In goal, Fracyon has been more consistent, but Helm can step up when needed, and both are dependent on their defenses limiting opponents to fewer and less desirable shots.
For Duke, the biggest key to success, then, is to keep doing what it has been doing all season: scoring at a nigh unbeatable clip thanks to O’Neill, Dyson Williams and Andrew McAdorey, and shutting down opponents’ scoring opportunities with a combination of aggressive defense, faceoff wins and winning the ground ball battle. -Richie
For as well-rounded as the Blue Devils are, their successes this season have directly correlated with the exploits of their main man. In the games where O’Neill has been heavily marked, and in some cases shut down, Duke has struggled to exert its usual offensive influence and largely feels like a loose chain on a bike. O’Neill’s 51 goals are impressive, but his 40 assists are what is really responsible for the Blue Devils’ attacking fluidity, allowing the likes of Williams and McAdorey to rack up scoring numbers of their own. Williams in particular has benefited immensely from O’Neill’s playmaking, taking advantage of the fact that O’Neill is marked by the opponent’s top defender to find open space around the crease and create good looks. It follows naturally, then, that should O’Neill be shut down — like he largely was against Notre Dame in the regular season and in the opening round against Delaware — Duke will struggle.
Penn State’s Jack Posey — the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 defenseman — left the game injured against Army, so that’s less likely Saturday, but against one of Virginia or Notre Dame, should the Blue Devils make it that far, they need O’Neill’s creativity and goalscoring. If they have it, they can win. If they don’t, it may be yet another season of heartbreak on Championship Weekend. -Long
Long: Penn State is a good team and it deserves to be here, but I can’t see a world in which the Nittany Lions are more talented or better coached than the Blue Devils are. I see Duke winning a close game by a few goals Saturday before squaring up against a familiar ACC foe in the final, which will go to the wire and be decided by, at most, two goals. I may eat my words here, but if it’s Notre Dame the Blue Devils meet, I think they ride their historic postseason dominance against the Fighting Irish to yet another title triumph. If it’s Virginia, however, I think Duke’s luck runs out the third time out, giving Lars Tiffany and his Cavaliers their third title in four years. At the end of the day, if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the ACC is the undisputed pinnacle of college lacrosse. Whichever of its three teams wins will have done so with a resume far superior to any other.
Richie: On Saturday, there is a reason Vegas is siding with Duke by a four-goal margin. Penn State is a great team, but this season, Duke, Notre Dame and Virginia have been in a league of their own. That’s why I don’t see a scenario where the Blue Devils aren’t playing for a championship Monday afternoon. Whether they win, though, is a different question. It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season, as Duke would need to do should Virginia advance, but Notre Dame, as a complete unit, is maybe the most balanced team in the country. Ultimately, Monday should be a coin flip, but if I had to pick, I’d pick against Duke in the final, if only because Virginia or Notre Dame will have just earned a much more difficult semifinal victory.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.