DURHAM, N.C. – The defending NCAA-champion and Warrior Media Poll preseason top-ranked Duke Blue Devils men’s lacrosse team was busy fine-tuning all aspects of their game as they practiced at their new and upgraded outdoor artificial-surface practice facility on Thursday.
As was typical when viewing a Duke practice, head coach John Danowski along with his staff – assistants Matt Danowski, Ron Caputo, and newly arrived volunteer assistant Ben DeLuca – were all fully engaged with their players – teaching, teaching, teaching.
Not a detail was overlooked that won’t be cemented in stone to lay the foundation for the upcoming season that begins on Saturday against the Atlantic Sun League’s Jacksonville Dolphins at Koskinen Stadium.
“I think we’re excited to play a different jersey and get this journey going,” attackman Jordan Wolf said.
“Jacksonville’s going to be a great team. They’re going to be flyin’ around, excited to play us, just like we’re excited to play them. It should be fun.”
Along with Wolf, excitement to finally play a game see what type of team they will be was also the sentiment echoed by head coach John Danowski.
With the exception of an atypical Fall Ball trip to scrimmage with newly minted Division I program Furman, the Blue Devils have only practiced, scrimmaged and challenged themselves since winning the program’s second national title last May.
“You don’t know,” Danowski said of what to expect of this year’s team.
“Until you step on the field, you don’t know what you have or what you’re working with. I love the kids, I love who they are, what they’ve done in the classroom, what they do in the weight room, what they do in practice. But, in terms of who we are as a team is yet to be discovered.”
Though how successful this year’s edition of the Blue Devils will be has not yet been found, a primer of who they are right now will help.
It’s a squad that returns 33 letterwinners and seven starters while welcoming 11 newcomers, 10 of whom are freshman.
That returning group includes leading scorer Wolf, first team All-American faceoff specialist Brendan Fowler, long- stick midfielder Luke Duprey, defensemen Chris Hipps and Henry Lobb, and goalkeeper Kyle Turri.
If anyone thinks that Duke isn’t ready to embark on another journey to Final Four weekend, the numbers will tell them otherwise.
The hidden gem that backstopped the Blue Devils in goal last season, Turri returns after putting together a 14-1 record as the starter in 2013, and holds a 16-2 overall record in his career at Duke.
Offensively, the Blue Devils return 65 percent of their scoring from a year ago, including an attack corps that includes Wolf, Josh Dionne and Case Matheis, while in the midfield Myles Jones and Deemer Class are a year older and more experienced.
Off the draw, Fowler’s 64 percent success rate at the faceoff X from a year ago is not expected to fluctuate much, while Duprey and Will Haus will help to claim ground balls to get the Duke offense rolling.
Haus will also help to anchor the defensive midfield unit with Charlie Payton and sophomore Joe Kruy, while on the back end Hipps and Lobb welcome experienced and returning defender Casey Carroll into the unit to give the Blue Devils one of the longest defensive units in the country, averaging 6-foot-3-inches in height.
“We got a lot stronger and faster in the offseason,” Fowler said.
“A lot of guys hit personal records on lifts and we ran a ton, so I think guys are in real good shape. Now, we’re just honing our skills here as we begin the season.”
Duke will play Jacksonville for the fifth consecutive season since it joined the ranks of NCAA Division I lacrosse in 2010, and has scored an average of 16 goals per game against the Dolphins and beat them by an average margin of 11 goals in the two teams’ previous four matchups.
The Blue Devils expect to face a better Jacksonville team that is coming off of its first winning season, posting an 8-5 record before falling to Siena in the MAAC semifinal, while recently landing six players on the Preseason Atlantic Sun Team led by goaltender Pete DeLuca and top-scoring attackman Ari Waffle.
Having finished last season with an overall record of 16-5, the Blue Devils will begin their 75th season with an empty slate and will fill it as each week and game approaches and goes by.
“I just think everybody’s really curious to see who we are, what we’re going to become,” Danowski said.
“I think Saturday is that first glimpse of that, but no one really spends a lot of time thinking about too far down because we just try to stay in the moment.”