March 14, 2012

Lambrecht: Duke Searching For Its Identity

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Duke has plenty of talent, like attackman Christian Walsh, but the Blue Devils have yet to find their identity in 2012, writes Gary Lambrecht.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

If recent history is a reliable guide, the Duke men's lacrosse team is going to be just fine. The Blue Devils are fast and skilled. They still can score in bunches with a transition game that brings to mind Syracuse or Virginia. They always improve over the course of the season. And Duke, the 2010 national champions, has earned a spot at the NCAA tournament's final four for five consecutive years.

But 15th-ranked Duke (4-3) needs fixing, and sixth-year coach John Danowski is the first to admit it. Listen to Danowski in the minutes following Duke's 13-8 shellacking on Saturday, at the hands of a Loyola team that looks increasingly like the real deal.

"We had a great week of practice, but it just doesn't seem to translate [to game day] right now," Danowski said. "We struggle offensively. We don't have a guy that can make a play and take the pressure off [other] guys. Defensively, we're a step slow, a step behind.

"We're pretty young, but that's not an excuse for some of the mistakes we're continuing to make week after week. We have great kids and terrific athletes. But we need a little more ballplayer. That's where we're struggling – having a feel. But these guys are our guys."

In other words, Danowski has no major lineup changes planned, as he sorts through the Blue Devils' shortcomings, which continue to reveal themselves.

Look at Monday night's 11-8 victory over visiting Harvard. After building a commanding, 11-4 lead through three quarters, Duke went south. It committed 10 turnovers and three fouls, allowed a pair of extra-man goals and got shut out, 4-0.

In the Loyola loss, a game the Greyhounds led, 13-5, early in the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils got beat to numerous, critical ground balls, could not cover the two-headed attack monster of Mike Sawyer-Eric Lusby. Duke was a wreck offensively, especially in the six-on-six and extra-man games.

None of the Blue Devils' dodgers made you think of former Duke star playmakers such as Matt Danowski or Ned Crotty. Not even sophomore attackman Jordan Wolf – the team's best go-to candidate. Wolf moves as if he's still bothered by the hip injury he incurred at Notre Dame nearly four weeks ago and has continued to play through.

You watch Duke, and you see talent. You see Wolf (12 goals, eight assists), Josh Dionne (15 goals) and Christian Walsh – who have combined for 51 of the team's 102 points on attack. You see Robert Rotanz, Justin Turri and Jake Tripucka (22 goals combined) on the first midfield, and David Lawson leading a decent second line.

You see speedy defenders such as LSM C.J. Costabile and close defenseman Chris Hipps sparking the fast break. You see the Blue Devils winning nearly 60 percent of their face-off attempts, taking 40 shots per game and averaging 10.43 goals.

Mostly, you see a team of obvious pedigree strangely searching for confidence and consistency, as it mucks up the game at times. You see a team in search of its identity. Who exactly are the Blue Devils of 2012?

"That is a great question," Danowski said. "That's a question we're going to continue to ask ourselves and figure out. Every year is a new year, and every team has its own personality."

It's only mid-March, but Duke needs to find itself soon. The Blue Devils could start by plugging some leaks that have been exposed during its 0-3 stand against the top 10. The Blue Devils are a putrid, 4-for-27 (.148) in extra-man situations, while their man-down unit has absorbed 16 goals on 50 percent shooting, thanks in part to an average of five penalties per game.

Duke has assisted on just 29 of its 73 goals. It needs to tighten up at the defensive midfield positions. It needs to get settled in the cage, where fifth-year senior Mike Rock, junior Dan Wigrizer and freshman Kyle Turri each have logged more than 100 minutes. Rock replaced an ineffective Wigrizer late in the first half at Loyola, and is coming off a 12-save effort against Harvard.

It's not panic time yet in Durham, and Danowski is not the panicking kind. Remember, two years ago, the Blue Devils were 2-3. All they did, with Crotty and Max Quinzani providing a major kick on offense, was string together 14 wins in their next 15 games and win it all.

But this edition of Duke is still learning its personality and finding its way, as the regular season ramps up with Friday's visit by archrival North Carolina. The Blue Devils aren't starving quite yet. But make no mistake. They are itching badly for a big-time win.


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