By Peter Koutroumpis
Durham, N.C. – Three NCAA championships in five years set an exceptionally high standard for the Duke Blue Devils’ incoming class to start the 2014-2015.
Winning back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014, following the program’s first in 2010, Duke had made it to Final Four Weekend in eight consecutive years up to that point back then.
However, even while continuing to earn a spot in the postseason tournament over the past four years, this year’s graduating senior class led by Tewaaraton Award finalist Justin Guterding has not spawned a finish better than the quarterfinals.
“It’s the hardest game to win,” head coach John Danowski said.
“We talk about all year, you know, It’s hard. Being a competitive athlete and trying to have an extraordinary season is difficult. If it wasn’t so difficult, then anybody could do it. Week after week there are different challenges. You hope over the course of the year, or over the course of a career, students are learning from those challenges.”
Together Everyone Achieves More
Getting to the Final Four milepost and past it will check off another item on the list Guterding and his teammates put together at the beginning of the season.
“It is another game, but it’s a big game – could end 15 guys’ careers,” he pointed out.
“The seniors are…I don’t really know how to explain it…we’re just so emotionally invested in this that we wanna get back to where we believe we belong.”
Carrying a 14-3 record into their match up against fifth-seeded Johns Hopkins (12-4) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., many will not only be watching to see if the Blue Devils can return to Final Four weekend for the first time in four years, but whether Guterding will assume the NCAA’s top spot in career goals scored.
Sitting with 204 career goals, two shy of former Duke standout Zack Greer’s 206, Duke’s current second all-time leading scorer (334 points), who also holds the current NCAA consecutive game goal-scoring streak (144 in 44 games), referred to earlier season shortfalls that Duke is focused on to get the job done.
“We had leads in all three of the games that we lost this year in the fourth quarter,” Guterding pointed out.)
“We definitely learned from those experiences and it’s been paying off.”
Sharing the load
With five postseason games to his credit, Guterding has tallied 22 points (12g, 10a), so surpassing Greer’s mark against the Blue Jays is a possibility, depending on how they choose to defend him.
Guterding’s not concerned whether he’s shut off or double teamed because he’ll get his when his teammates do.
Following last week’s 17-11 opening-round win over Villanova, he feels good about where the Blue Devils offense stands.
“Last week (against Villanova) was really good for our team,” he pointed out.
“We scored 17 goals and I only had three points (2g, 1a), and that was huge for confidence with guys on our offense. We have total playmakers on our team – we have every guy on the field that steps up on the offensive end and can make a play.”
Just going about our business
Leaving a legacy of accomplishment for rising upperclassmen to follow has been the focal point of each Duke graduating class.
This year’s squad intends to be the one to at least restart the trend to make it to Final Four Weekend and beyond on a regular basis.
With the Blue Devils’ past success, deep with NCAA Tournament champions as part of making 12 consecutive postseason appearances, one would think that some motivational messages and well-wishes have filtered back to campus from former players.
Apparently, that’s not the case – that’s not the Duke way.
“I haven’t received a text, an email, a phone call from anybody from former programs,” Danowski said.
“We kind of work in anonymity here, and it’s kinda nice. You know, there’s very little outside influence and it’s a nice way to operate. It’s a nice way for us to just go about our business. Every college Division 1 lacrosse player aspires to be in these (NCAA Tournament) games. I don’t know that if you need some external motivation at this point, then probably you’re not gonna do very well in the game itself. That’s the hope.”
A different team
As each of Duke’s championship teams have had some signature style of play led by specific individuals, Danowski truly believes this is “the most unique team” he’s ever coached.
“I don’t think they have any (identity), I really don’t,” he stated bluntly.
“I just think they’re a bunch of guys who really like each other and like playing lacrosse. You know, I don’t think there’s one given leader. You’d say that Justin is the leading scorer, but I don’t think he is the leader of the group. I think they lead collectively. I think they move forward collectively yet they maintain their individual identities.”
Danowski also pointed out that this year’s squad is as good as any that has coached.
“By any numbers, whether it’s number of wins, whether it’s their shots-on-goal percentage, whether it’s their goals against, whether it’s the goalies’ save percentage, whether it’s Justin’s numbers – by any metric, it is one of our better teams.”
With that said, it is apparent that the selfless nature of this group has put it in a position to reestablish Duke at a level of stature back near the top – from both an individual and team point of view.
As far as Guterding is concerned, it has been and will always be ‘team first’.
“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think about it,” he said of the NCAA goal-scoring mark.
“It’s really not that important to me. If we keep playing more games, it eventually will happen. It’s certainly in my mind, but I’m not gonna let it take control over getting back to the Final Four.”
“At the end of the day, you gotta make the plays in front of you,” Danowski concluded.
“You gotta hope that the other team is not on their A-game. You hope that they miss the cage or hit a pipe, but you gotta be able to withstand the runs. You gotta be able to make plays after a team makes a run, and to be strong enough emotionally as a team (to do so).”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport