It had been six years since Casey Carroll had been a part of an NCAA lacrosse championship weekend.
He was a senior All-American in 2007, when Duke, coming off its canceled 2006 season, made it all the way to the NCAA championship game and came up one goal short against Johns Hopkins. When the Blue Devils won the title in 2010, Carroll was in Afghanistan with the Army Rangers, furiously refreshing a website keeping track of the score.
This weekend, he was back with the Blue Devils as they traveled to Philadelphia and won in the national semifinals Saturday to earn a spot in Mondays national championship game.
Carroll brought his wife, Erin, and infant son, Casey, with him, and they watched as Duke beat Cornell, the same school that the 2007 team defeated to advance to the national championship game.
Carroll is out of the military and a student at Dukes Fuqua School of Business. His plan this year was to return to the field after a five-year hiatus, using a fifth year of eligibility granted to him when he injured his knee during his junior year. But a torn ACL in late January caused him to take a different role.
Casey has been a big brother, Duke coach John Danowski said. Hes not quite a coach, but hes stepped into the locker room and addressed the team when he felt appropriate, pulls guys aside and puts his arm around them and gives them some insight about playing or that sort of situation.
Casey was a first team All-American when he left here, and his skills hadnt diminished much when we watched him practice, and the guys saw that. It wasnt like the guys didnt respect him. They respected not only what he has experienced, but also his skills and his abilities.
As far as life experiences go, Carroll has those not typically seen in a college lacrosse player. It was a Duke lacrosse connection that inspired him to become an Army Ranger.
Family, Duke inspire service
The son of a retired New York City fireman (and brother to two current ones), Carroll was touched by 9/11. He was lucky, he said, to grow up in a patriotic family, one with a history of military service, particularly in the Navy. After 9/11, he knew he wanted to serve his country. Throughout his time at Duke, he kept that idea in mind.
His senior year, he talked to then assistant coach Kevin Cassese about other Duke lacrosse players that had gone into the military. Cassese gave him the names and numbers of two men still on active duty: Jon Enberg, a Navy Seal, and Jimmy Regan, an Army Ranger who graduated two years prior to Carrolls matriculation.
Carroll never had the chance to connect with Regan. He was just beginning a deployment to Iraq, and in February 2007, Regan was killed in action. That inspired Carroll to become an Army Ranger and join the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, just like Regan.
From February 9th, which is the day he died, on, I knew thats what I wanted to do, Carroll said. I saw that as a sign and a great way to pay tribute to the sacrifice he made and do my own thing.
Carroll was active in the military from 2007-2012, making four overseas tours first to Iraq and the final three times to Afghanistan.
Everybody prepares themselves mentally for what they think they might see overseas, Carroll said last fall about his experience. You quickly realize that its nothing like youd expect, and its not a video game anymore.
Picking up at Duke
His lacrosse skills grew rusty while he was serving the country Carrolls former teammate and current Duke assistant Matt Danowski sent him a few sticks during his last deployment, but they saw far more use as TV channel changing aids than sporting equipment.
They gained dust in the corner of the tent pretty quickly, Carroll joked.
Even though practice sessions didnt materialize, Carroll never forgot about his extra year of eligibility. Typically, NCAA athletes have five years from the time they enroll to use their eligibility, but there are exceptions for military service. Carroll decided he wanted to use the GI Bill and try to attend business school. He applied one place: Duke. If that worked out, he thought, why not try and play lacrosse?
Coach (John) Danowski, after my senior year, had mentioned that I would still have that year of eligibility left, which seemed like almost a joke at the time, Carroll said. I think he said it half-jokingly without knowing that Id come to collect five years later.
When Carroll contacted him, Danowski was on board with the idea. Chris Kennedy, Dukes deputy director of athletics, helped them navigate the complicated process. With Carrolls acceptance, he was able to return to the team.
Around the time Dukes roster grew by one, Carroll and his wife found out their family would grow by one too. Casey Patrick Carroll was born in September. Through the fall, Carroll juggled his family, school and lacrosse obligations.
Thats how it went until late in January, when Carroll tore his ACL, prematurely ending his season.
Four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he tears his ACL on the practice field, Danowski said.
Carroll quickly put it in perspective.
Theres no way for a second that a guy like me can feel sorry for himself after being lucky so many times, he said. If I used up all my luck overseas, then Im fine with that.
Even though he could no longer play, he wasnt done with the team.
A mentor on, off field
By nature, Carroll enjoys being part of a team, just one of the guys instead of a vocal leader up front. Hes quick to deflect praise and attention, telling people when they thank him for his service that its the men and women who are still active, especially those with families, that deserve the gratitude.
Similarly, he downplays any impact he may have had on this years team. Along with this weekends trip, he has attended all home games, the ACC tournament and last weekends NCAA quarterfinals in Indianapolis. As far as his effect on the team, you would have to ask them about that, he said.
Phenomenal was the word junior Luke Duprey used to describe Carrolls involvement with the team. Teammate Josh Dionne had a similarly strong reaction.
I honestly enjoy sitting at his table for meals probably the most because hes got the most stories, Dionne said. You can ask him questions about scenarios. These last couple of times when weve been down, you look into his eyes and see the passion. That gets a little fire in you. Hes been great.
Carroll might be back next year too. Duke has petitioned for a sixth year of eligibility for him. If that is approved, Carroll will have to evaluate the opportunity with his wife, who is expecting their second child in November.
After this weekend, Carroll will take his family to Charlotte for the summer, where he will be an intern with Wells Fargo. But first, there is an opportunity to win a championship on Memorial Day, a milestone in a journey that began nine years ago.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley