DURHAM, N.C. – Led by Tewaaraton Award finalist Myles Jones, the two-time defending national champion and fifth-ranked Duke Blue Devils will face off against the 15th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2015 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship Tournament at Koskinen Stadium on Saturday.
That’s when the Tournament’s fifth seed will begin its quest to make a ninth consecutive Final Four weekend appearance and to win a third straight and fourth title in six years.
As the nation’s top scoring midfielder, Jones paces the high-powered Duke offense with a career-best 75 points (39 goals, 36 assists).
He was announced on Thursday as one of the five finalists for the 2015 Tewaaraton Award – a coveted recognition presented annually to the nation’s top men’s and women’s lacrosse players.
A two-time All-ACC honoree, the midfielder is the eighth Blue Devil and seventh under head coach John Danowski to earn the Tewaaraton finalist distinction.
Though possessing two championship rings already, the junior has had to work harder this season than in the past two to help his teammates put together another run towards winning a title.
“Every season’s different,” Jones said when speaking to local media on Wednesday.
“(It was a) different path my freshman year – different path my sophomore year. This year, a lot of guys takin’ on different roles, (we had) a lot of ups and downs in the season, different than the previous two.”
Alongside him, Jones has Justin Guterding (50 goals, 18 assists), Jack Bruckner (44 goals, 11 assists), Deemer Class (33 goals, 19 assists), and Case Matheis (19 goals, 16 assists) connecting the dots on fast breaks, early and set offensive sequences that have kept opposing defenses busy.
Goalkeeper Danny Fowler stepped in to help anchor a developing defensive corps that under Luke Aaron experienced some adversity in late March, but now enters postseason play with confidence in either one to make the final stop when needed.
“It was a lot different and a lot more fun in a sense,” Danowski said of the team’s development this season.
“I think last year the seniors, we had a driven group of seniors who had played a lot of lacrosse, had played since they were freshmen. This particular group hadn’t. So, we lessened their expectations from the beginning. We told them, ‘hey, we don’t know that you’re a playoff team’ – very honest with them. It wasn’t a coaching ploy as ‘hey, coach is understating us, so he’s challenging us’. No, we just didn’t know. So, we’re not going to put that kind of pressure on you. Let’s just show up each day and work, and let’s see what we could become. I think they have, certainly at this point, exceeded our expectations that we had in August.”
Though they didn’t play one another during the season, Duke hosted Ohio State for a preseason scrimmage back in late January.
A circumstance that bred familiarity amongst the teams, and created some synergy that will be interesting to watch play out.
They practiced together.
They scrimmaged against one another in the morning and the afternoon, and even attended a dinner together that was highlighted with a guest speaker.
“Our teams ate together, and I heard one of the guys say this week, ‘jeez, I wish I didn’t make friends with those guys at Ohio State,” Danowski said with a chuckle.
“I don’t know if that hurts or helps, but with a little bit of familiarity, I’m sure at 7:30 (p.m.) all that will fade. But, I don’t think any of us really remember too much about the end of January.”
Though progressing through the season with its fair share of success, Ohio State (11-6) has recently experienced its own adversity, losing three of its last four games, particularly down the stretch in Big Ten Conference play.
Even while losing 13-6 to Johns Hopkins in the Big Ten Championship game last weekend, the Buckeyes’ body of work is a strong one.
“They’ve got three great wins,” Danowski said.
“You could argue that their three wins are better than any three wins that we have – a win over Denver – a win over Maryland, at Maryland in a really important game for both teams – and then a win over Johns Hopkins during the season. Those are three terrific, terrific wins for their program. So, they know how to win. They also have seniors, so they feel that sense of urgency on their side, where they want to be successful. They’re terrific. They’re well coached. It’s a great opportunity for us for sure.”
On the other hand, Duke (12-5) has won five of its last six games, with a 15-14 loss to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament final as the only recent blemish.
A string of victories that followed three straight losses to Syracuse, North Carolina and Notre Dame in late March/early April has reinvigorated thoughts and hope that the Blue Devils could three-peat.
That notion, however, never crossed Danowski’s mind – at any point in the year.
At the beginning of the season, the coaching staff didn’t expect to get the offensive output from the roster of players it had because it possessed such little starting and game experience.
“Losing Christian Walsh, Jordan Wolf, Josh Dionne, all those guys from last year, I would not have expected us to be that successful,” the Duke coach said candidly.
“A lot of hard work, maybe a little bit of luck for sure, but I give a lot of credit to coaches Ron Caputo and Matt Danowski for developing these young men.”
“Different things had to be overcome with this team, than in the past,” Jones added.
“We’ve done that (now) and that’d be really good for us to take forward. Fourth quarter, we need a couple of goals, (we can) dig down deep and realize all the stuff we’ve been through during the season may have us come out on top.”
To clarify, coming out on top only means winning one game at a time.
That’s how Duke has prepared to play every opponent all season, by focusing on winning only the next game and nothing beyond.
Danowski says making it to the Final Four again and winning a championship is “something we don’t talk about.”
“Because now with the immediacy of the Tournament, this is the first time you’re playing and saying quite frankly, ‘Sunday’s graduation, so Sunday’s an off-day either way. We’re either having a meeting on Monday to pack up our stuff and send the seniors home, or we’re practicing for next week’.
So, there is that sense of let’s just live in the moment and focus on Saturday night,” Danowski concluded.
“I think it’s a lot easier to live that way. It’s a lot easier for us day-to-day to live in the moment as we’re preparing for Saturday night.”