DURHAM — It’s a rite of passage every spring.
Every season, Duke men’s lacrosse coach John Danowski worries about his team. Is his staff teaching the right techniques? Is his team listening to the staff? How do they listen, anyway (in one week, the coaches took turns sending daily text messages in attempt to get through to the Blue Devils).
This year’s Duke gave Danowski plenty of reasons to fuel this self-questioning routine. The Blue Devils, ranked in the top 10 to start the year, opened 2-4 and began ACC play March 2 with an unspectacular 16-7 loss to Maryland.
That, though, is the last time the Blue Devils lost.
Riding the nation’s longest active winning streak, No. 5 Duke (11-4) opens the ACC tournament Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Chapel Hill against No. 1 UNC (10-3). The Tar Heels have the country’s third longest winning streak, which began after an 11-8 loss to Duke on March 13.
Slow starts are routine for Duke – the Blue Devils have only been over .500 six games into the season once in the past four years. But they finish strong, historically, winning the national championship in 2010 and making the Final Four the past two seasons.
“It’s hard to put your finger on what, exactly, it is,” senior Jake Tripucka said of the habitual early season losses. “Trust me, I’ve been here for four years, and we’ve kind of done the same thing every year, and we’re still trying to figure it out.
“You hope that after a while you’re going to play a certain way and it’s going to follow through. If you’re doing the right thing and making the right plays, then wins are going to follow. To say that it’s a science, I wouldn’t say that.”
There were a few changes around the time Duke started to win. Junior Christian Walsh was moved from an attack position to the midfield, opening a spot for Case Matheis up top. Matheis, who wasn’t quite ready to play at the beginning of the year, Danoskwi said, now leads ACC freshmen in goals and assists.
“That took a lot because Christian scored a lot of goals for us in his first two years. He had to swallow his ego a little bit for the sake of the team,” Danowski said. “It might have allowed (senior midfielders) David Lawson and Jake Tripucka to relax a little bit, to play with Christian. It certainly seems on paper that that’s helped.”
An injury at goalie also forced sophomore Kyle Turri into the starting role against defending national champion Loyola, the first game of Duke’s current win streak. Turri is a 9-0 as the starter.
It’s impossible to say exactly what triggered the Blue Devils annual turnaround. The result, though, is that the Blue Devils are right where they want to be heading into the ACC tournament. Danowski has been successful against the Tar Heels, 13-1 in seven years at Duke. But the Blue Devils know winning is an inexact science.
“Every year you say you don’t want to start slow, and we had that mind-set coming into the year, but we obviously started a little bit slow,” senior defender Bill Conners said. “But we were able to just keep pressing and keep working hard, and we finally got the results that we wanted. We’re seeing the benefits or our hard work at the beginning of the season now.”
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley