DURHAM, N.C. – lt was a long time coming for lacrosse action to return to Koskinen Stadium – 332 days to be exact.
Not only was the day’s rain subsiding, so was the Duke Blue Devils’ haze emerging from the COVID-19 bubble they’ve lived in throughout the current academic year.
By the end of their season-opening game against Denver, the Blue Devils had posted a 12-10 win on Friday.
Emptying the tank
Thanks to an 8-2 run in the second half, Duke silenced an aggressive Pioneers scoring barrage that had them trailing by four at halftime.
While junior midfielder Owen Caputo’s second goal of the game was the eventual winner, freshman Brennan O’Neill (3g, 1a) and heralded grad-transfer attackman Michael Sowers (1g, 3a) did a lot of the heavy lifting offensively.
Goalkeeper Turner Uppgren’s 11-save performance helped solidify the defense after Denver took a commanding 6-1 lead by the 13:23 mark of the second quarter.
“I was obviously nervous – with this whole pandemic – it’s been two years since I’ve played a real game,” O’Neill said.
“So I mean, you’ve got to like shake off the cobwebs a little bit, but I felt like everyone else too at first was a little nervous as we should be. And once we settled, we ended up playing like ourselves, like we have been this whole Fall.”
Milestone for Danowski
Head coach John Danowski earned his 200th win at Duke under circumstances that he nor his team knew how they’d finish under to begin the season.
That included not having three players, including senior attack Joe Robertson, not suiting up this weekend due to following Duke health protocols.
“You know, during the during the Fall semester we had over 1700 COVID tests with our team and our staff and we did not have one positive; so the model works, you know, as long as everybody cooperates,” Danowski pointed out.
“For the most part, you know, it’s as good as it could be. There’s no doubt about that. The spring has started off the same way – one hiccup, you know, with some contact tracing and one positive test, but we’ve had no others. We test every day now in-season and we feel really good about where we’re at going forward.”
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Despite the Pioneers offense coming out blazing led by Jackson Merrill (3g), JJ Sillstrop (2g, 1a), and Lucas Cotler (2g, 1a), Duke weathered the early storm.
“I thought the first quarter, I thought Denver was terrific,” Danowski said.
“They made some really great individual plays. We were all loaded up defensively, and yet they were making plays. And so you gotta tip your cap to your opponent, right? And I thought we were very nervous; it’s been a long time since we played, and then all of a sudden you get down, and then everybody gets quiet.
“I said during the timeout, ‘listen, what’s the worst thing that can happen? You’re gonna lose 25-5? So just relax and play the game.’ Easier said than done, you know, for sure. But I thought that the guys kind of settled in and just kept playing.”
Learning about who we are
A 5-2 third quarter advantage and keeping Denver scoreless during the final 15 minutes to score three unanswered allowed Duke to finish the game the way they wanted to, even with some candid hesitation coming in.
“I think the emotion that I think everybody was feeling was, I don’t know. I don’t know how we’re gonna do today. I had no idea,” Danowski said.
“As coaches, we always say to each other, ‘how are we going to do today?’ And all of us said, ‘I have no idea.’
Team chemistry takes time. And team chemistry isn’t just built. It’s normally built, you know, in the social hours, you know, in the social events when the guys can hang out together. Now, there’s no hanging out together. So the only way that’s really going to be built is through gameday – adversity, being together, you know, facing things as a group. And I thought that today was a terrific opportunity for the guys, for us to learn about who we are, what we might become.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport