Danowski and Duke have a chance to steady volatile NCAA lacrosse season

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DURHAM, N.C. – Duke Blue Devils men’s lacrosse coaches and players felt the same uneasiness that their fans felt last week.

Were they going to make it into their 10th straight postseason NCAA tournament or not?

“We thought we didn’t make it,” head coach John Danowski said.

Eventually, the Blue Devils would rest easier as they earned an at-large bid into the 2016 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship Tournament, and were called to face off against the seventh-seeded and Patriot League-champion Loyola Greyhounds (12-3) at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore, Md. on Saturday.

The suspense of it all was fitting for how this season has played out for the Blue Devils.

The unexpected became the norm for this group to deal with.

Taking a breath in before each next moment was the practice that Danowski and his squad developed before exhaling a sigh of relief and moving on from it.

The team was following the NCAA selection show on a plane while traveling home after beating the Boston University Terriers 15-8 last Sunday.

The win pushed their overall record to 11-7, but the exhilarating feeling of posting another win didn’t carry much further than the turf on Nickerson field.

“We were sitting two-by-two and I was in the window seat and we were just like (pause)…they were interviewing coaches and it was taking longer and longer, so it gave us a few anxious moments for sure,” Danowski continued.

As the tournament selection show played on for what seemed like an eternity for the Blue Devils, coaches and players didn’t hear their name called as one of the top eight seeds.

Nor should they have really.

That type of pick considering how they played during the regular season was a long shot.

Though assembling a respectable resume considering Duke’s strength of schedule, the loss column had too many tallies in it, and brought into many people’s minds the possibility that during this tumultuous season some upset at-large selections would be made.

Shortfalls against then 12th-ranked Harvard (14-9) and unranked Richmond (12-10) could have worked against the Blue Devils, particularly when added to overtime losses at home to Air Force (10-9) and North Carolina (17-16).

This year’s team with 15 graduating seniors, the solidifying foundation of a three-time NCAA championship winning program, was not the consistently overpowering and dominant force of past seasons.

Yes, when they were on, they were on; but when they were off, they were more than off by Duke standards.

The remaining three losses the Blue Devils accrued were in the regular season to eventual tournament No. 2 seed Denver (14-12) and No. 3 seed Notre Dame (8-6) and in the ACC tournament final to No. 8 seed Syracuse (14-8).

“I guess our RPI was not what we thought it was for our top 10 games,” Danowski said.

“When we saw that we weren’t seeded, and we had wins over four of those top 8 (seeded teams), then as they kept being revealed and we weren’t showing up…we thought they were going to pick Harvard because they beat us head-to-head.”

No, the Crimson didn’t receive the bid, but the Blue Devils did, and barely so.

It’s been a season of many too-close-to-call moments that have impacted how Duke has responded on the field and even off of it.

Danowski displayed very atypical mannerisms when not talking with local media following those tough losses at home to Richmond and North Carolina.

That’s not what this championship-winning coach has done in the past, and as a result he and his team have taken a track towards the postseason that they’re not familiar with.

However, in describing the journey, Danowski pointed out that maybe the adversity the Blue Devils have faced and the path they’re on is actually the right one.

“We weren’t making plays,” he pointed out when talking of those shortfalls against the Falcons and the Spiders.

“You’re searching for what’s the right answer, but the right answer is playing in those games. The right answer is losing. Sometimes you have to lose and get knocked back a little bit and to recognize. The lessons that we took from Air Force and Richmond carried us forward. I don’t think you really know who you are until you’re in those situations.”

How the coaching staff reacted to what seemed like the players’ low-key responses to the ebbs and flows of the season was actually the main learning point for this team.

“This is not a very demonstrative group, they’re very workman-like,” Danowski said.

“They just show up and they do work – whether it’s in the weight room, or in the classroom, or it’s at practice. They’re not very vocal. It’s just who they are. It’s taken us (coaches) a while to get over that. You like your seniors to be noisy and loud and excited, but that’s not how they go about their business. That will be up to the coaches to be noisy and loud and those things.”

Heading into their first-round game, the Blue Devils have won four of their last five, and hold a regular-season 15-6 win over Loyola.

However, to get closer to winning another national championship, Duke has to win four straight games, and to first top a hot Greyhounds squad that has won eight straight.

The largest streak the Blue Devils have pieced together was as three-game stretch late in the season with dominating wins over Virginia (14-8) and Marquette (16-1) and a 10-9 overtime thriller in the ACC tournament over the Fighting Irish.

That may have them ready to go on their most critical and rewarding run of the season.

Will they do it?

Quite possibly; but expect nothing less than continued anxious and exhilarating moments to go along with it all.

“It’s certainly not going to be easy,” Danowski concluded.