|Notre Dame vs. Duke - Mar. 2 - Peter Koutroumpis, PKS Consulting LLC|
At the end of the day back on Mar. 2, the then 19th-ranked Duke Blue Devils sat 2-4 and had just lost 16-7 to the then top-ranked Maryland Terrapins at home in the familiar surroundings of Koskinen Stadium in Durham, N.C.
It was a loss that subsequently knocked the six-time Final Four participants out of the national rankings for the first time since April 2004.
Many doubted that the Blue Devils would recover to earn a spot in postseason play from what they had seen after three straight losses against top-10 opponents Denver, Notre Dame, and then Maryland, put Duke at such a woeful spot early in the season.
However, those who have followed this team for the seven years that Duke head coach John Danowski has led the program, know and understand something about Duke lacrosse that many don't.
It’s about character first, athleticism second.
It's not only individual stick skills and special teams play that Danowski seeks to develop in his team's play from year to year, it's about developing the character of each of his players and bringing them together as a collective to draw from all their positives to function and become successful as one unit.
"I love our kids and I believe we'll get better," is what Danowski said after that tough loss to Maryland.
The Blue Devils did exactly that after that and began a resurgence that consisted of beating the defending NCAA champion and then fourth-ranked LoyolaGreyhounds 9-8 at home and never looking back for nine straight games.
Heading into the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tournament, they were the ‘hottest’ team in the country at the time before the equally hot North Carolina Tar Heelstopped them in a thrilling 18-17 shootout in the semifinals.
Regardless of suffering that loss and not reclaiming the ACC title that they owned for the past year, the Blue Devils continued on and finished ended the regular season with what seemed like a promotional game against a first-year program in Marquette.
An enthusiastic and very interested crowd of over 4,000 Midwesterners in attendance witnessed Duke’s mastery of play in a 19-3 victory over the Blue Eagles, but more importantly provided the Blue Devils another game to play before the NCAA Tournament began.
They didn’t find out where they would start in NCAA postseason play until the players started checking their phones on the plane as they returned home from Wisconsin.
It didn’t really matter to them as they were just happy to be in the mix to return to where they’ve been so many times – in the conversation as potential national champions.
“You learn from your mistakes, you keep tryin’ to get better,” head coach John Danowski said before they were to play the Greyhounds in a return matchup in the first-round of tournament play.
“I think that what this season’s about, and every season’s about. For our guys, this is not a goal. The goal is always to improve and get better.”
After beating the Greyhounds 12-11 in overtime last Sunday, the Blue Devils showed more improvement and that they could win a game after falling behind and making such a remarkable comeback to do so.
Duke now has another opportunity to making it to an unprecedented seventh consecutive Final Four weekend of play, and chance at winning its second-ever national championship under Danowski’s direction.
“You just have to meet the challenges that are in front of you,” Danowski said as his team prepared to face the tournament second-seed, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, in the quarterfinals on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind.
“It’s not anything you plan on. Not anything you prepare for, or that you teach, or that you can coach. It’s just something your players choose to respond to.”
The Duke Blue Devils players certainly responded to the challenge that was presented to them earlier this season, and have responded accordingly with ample success to return to a place they are familiar with.
Against the Fighting Irish, who beat them handily 13-5 back in mid-February, the Blue Devils know that they are a different and better team than they were then.
Danowski believes they are and their record and play since Mar. 2 shows it.
If listening to the coach doesn’t convince you that he and his players understand the method to their madness, senior midfielder and captain David Lawson described what happens for Duke lacrosse teams to peak at the right time of the season.
“I kind of feel that it happens every year,” he said.
"It’s probably a tribute to how coach Danowski and all the coaches coach, but as the season goes on, we get more confidence. We clean up our stick work, we get used to playing with each other, developing chemistry, and everything just starts to come together for us – offensively and defensively. We just play and practice so much that it just takes a ton of reps to figure it out, but when we start to figure it out, everything really comes together for us.”Editor's Update: Lawson went on to tally a career-high five goals against Notre Dame, including the game winner that sent the Blue Devils onto their seventh consecutive Final Four appearance.