Heading into NCAA lacrosse quarterfinals, Duke has come a long way

Cheryl Treworgy, TSN via PrettySporty.com

DURHAM, N.C. – Attackman Justin Guterding got a pass and buried a right-handed shot during the end of practice on Tuesday and the entire Duke Blue Devils team cheered and jumped all over him.

It was a light moment from an energetic group that continued to put the finishing touches on preparations to face the third-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in 2017 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament quarterfinal play in Hempstead, N.Y.  on Saturday.

That wasn’t how this team, currently standing at 13-4 and ranked sixth nationally, looked following an 11-10 season-opening loss  to Air Force on Feb. 5.

It was only the first game of the season, a loss to a preseason-ranked Falcons team that eventually earned the Southern Conference title, but it was a shortfall the Blue Devils didn’t need to start with if they wanted to be considered national-championship caliber.

Head coach John Danowski and his coaching staff didn’t take the team to its on-field locker room following the game, but back to its main locker room in the Murray Building.

There was no opportunity to come out and greet fans, family or anyone else and soften the blow of a loss suffered on their home field.

That’s usually the routine following each game.

Not on that night.

The players needed to be by themselves and let the stern postgame comments from Danowski resonate and sink in.

While the coach talked with the handful of media on hand, the entire team marched in two single-file lines, side-by-side, saying nothing.

It was a walk of shame to their on-field room to get the rest of their equipment and back across an empty, quiet Koskinen Stadium field with no one there.

“You hope that there’s a lesson in here for us, if we’re open to it,” Danowski said back then.

There was, and this young Duke team responded.

They didn’t make excuses, but rather worked hard to fulfill the expectation to win.

The Blue Devils won eight of their next 10 games, including a 12-8 victory over defending champion and Tobacco Road foe North Carolina.

The two losses during that stretch, both on the road, were to perennial top-20 and NCAA-championship programs Denver and Syracuse.

The Pioneers, Orange, and Tar Heels aside, Duke’s schedule during that first-half stretch wasn’t against the upper-level of opposition that would prepare it for a serious postseason run.

The latter part of the slate, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) play beginning in Chapel Hill, showed how much this group would continue to progress.

Heading into their matchup against the Buckeyes, the Blue Devils have won five of their last six games, the only blip was a 7-6 ACC Tournament loss to Notre Dame.

It denied them an NCAA top-eight seed, but presented another motivating factor to be better.

Though the losses haven’t been plentiful, they have come at the right time to initiate a response to achieve results, even amidst doubt.

According to Guterding, Danowski’s early-season assessment to the group was that it possessed the talent to finish 7-7.

Call it tough love.

But if you know Danowski well enough, he wouldn’t make a statement like that unless it possessed truth in it.

His players got the message, one that added fuel to a fire that has been building and flared during a 19-6 NCAA opening-round win over No. 6 seed Johns Hopkins last week.

“We proved him wrong,” Guterding said.

“We proved a lot of people wrong this year. “

This Blue Devils team now stands one win away from playing during Final Four weekend for the first time in two years.

Before then, Duke had competed during Memorial Day weekend for eight straight years, winning the 2010, 2013, and 2014 titles.

It’s a trip that Guterding and others haven’t made, and are ready to take after claiming their first career postseason win against Hopkins.

The Air Force loss was the slap in the face that woke the Blue Devils up.

It helped turn stern and concerned looks back in February to more confident and appreciative expressions of excitement in May.

By no means have they taken any of it for granted – they’ve learned that much from their toughest critic in Dananowski, and even themselves.

They don’t want any of it to end just yet, not on the road they’ve traveled.

“I don’t want to be happy with one playoff win, Guterding said.

“That’s not what I came here for. I came here to win a national championship.”