DURHAM, N.C. – The top-ranked Duke Blue Devils men’s lacrosse team polished off some new gems who shone brightly in a 14-10 win over the fourth-ranked Denver Pioneers on Saturday.
Midfielder Deemer Class tallied three goals and led the Duke offense that featured eight scorers – five of whom finished with multiple-goal performances – while goalkeeper Luke Aaron stepped in to record a career-high nine saves to earn his first win of the season.
“We were definitely real fired up,” Class said.
“Our seniors had never beaten Denver, so to come out and beat them here at home was huge.”
As their normal playing surface in Koskinen Stadium recovered from a snow and ice storm that blanketed the area earlier in the week, the Blue Devils (2-0) hosted the Pioneers (1-1) on their synthetic practice field in front of a crowd of 500-plus spectators who watched along the perimeter of the chain-linked fence encompassing the facility.
Having lost three straight to Denver in the two teams’ previous meetings, including a 14-12 shootout last year in Koskinen, the Blue Devils took control early on.
Attackman Case Matheis’ game high four points (2 goals, 2 assists) including Duke’s opening goal of the game started it all just 11 seconds in.
From there Christian Walsh (2 goals, 1 assist), Myles Jones (2 goals, 1 assist), Kyle Keenan (2 goals), Jordan Wolf (1 goal, 2 assists), Brendan Fowler (1 goal), and Luke Duprey (1 goal) filled the score sheet to earn the four-goal margin of victory over Denver.
The Pioneers, led by Zach Miller (4 goals) and Wesley Berg (3 goals), tied the score twice during the first half, but weren’t able to get close to assuming the upper hand on the Blue Devils as they did a year ago.
After taking a 3-1 lead during the first four minutes of play, the Blue Devils managed to keep a 5-4 lead after the first quarter of play.
It was a margin that was too close for comfort for Duke head coach John Danowski who decided to make a change in goal, replacing starter Kyle Turri with Aaron.
The move proved to be the tonic and difference-maker as Aaron put up career numbers while playing the remaining 45 minutes to hold Duke’s lead and eventual victory intact.
Though he had gotten playing time last season, including in the final minute of the NCAA-championship game, the sophomore keeper’s work in practice earned him a chance to step in and provide fresh eyes and ball-stopping ability to impede the Pioneers offense.
“Kyle’s got a phenomenal record for us and we love him, but he only made two saves last week,” Danowski said.
“He didn’t make any saves in that first quarter. We just felt that Luke’s been playing terrific in practice and that it was time to see if we could create a spark. I think that when Luke made that first save, the guys really got excited and it helped us.”
Duke’s offense had a different look to it as the team’s midfield took over the scoring responsibilities as both of Denver’s keepers, starter Jamie Faus (6 saves) and replacement Ryan LaPlante (7 saves), faced numerous 12 to 15-foot shots throughout the game.
With Blue Devils senior attackmen Wolf and Josh Dionne (1 assist) held to one goal on five shots – including three on goal – the Pioneers’ close defense did its job covering them with effective slides and stick-on-stick coverage.
However, led by Class, Walsh and Jones who had a combined 14 shots on goal, the Duke midfielders successfully converted on numerous possession sequences from the edges of the defensive perimeter.
“They locked the bases, so the attackmen were always covered,” Class said.
“We dodged, we had to throw it back, so the middie had to make a move or one more (pass) to the other middie. Out of perimeter shots, guys were just being unselfish, and moving it one more was the key to our success.”
The Blue Devils’ exceptional ground ball game, a 32-21 possession advantage led by nine ground balls picked up off the draw by Brendan Fowler who won 16-of-27 faceoffs, provided Duke with ample time to work its offense.
Defensively, Aaron’s energetic and effective work in goal allowed his close defense to clamp down tight in front of him while snipers like Miller and Berg kept firing away from the perimeter until the final horn sounded.
When asked at what point in the game he felt comfortable after taking his place in the crease, Aaron responded by saying, ”I think after the first few saves.”
“It was a little nerve-wracking, but I had been in that situation before. It was really great because the team rallied behind me and I felt at ease because the defensemen let me see the shots.”
Though the Pioneers outscored the Blue Devils (3-2) during the final 15 minutes of play, including converting on an EMO, they weren’t able to overcome the five-goal lead (12-7) that Duke mounted during the previous three quarters.
“I think the biggest thing was staying focused at that point,” Aaron said of preserving the win with Denver pressing late in the game.
“You just have to stay mentally in it and I think we did a good job of that. Some lapses here and there, but our seniors really picked us up…Overall, a big team effort.”