With the start of the 2014 season just days away, coach John Danowski isn’t worrying a lot about defending Duke’s NCAA men’s lacrosse championship.
Instead, Danowski is more worried about the Blue Devils surviving a tough nonconference schedule, then making it through an even tougher ACC.
That’s also the concern of North Carolina coach Joe Breschi, who said this season’s “new look” ACC probably is the nation’s toughest Division I conference … and very well could be the best ever.
The addition of multi-time national champion Syracuse and Notre Dame has created a men’s lacrosse “super-conference,” akin to the old Big East in college basketball or the current-day SEC in football.
“Right now, we’re not even thinking about the ACC – probably because I don’t want to think about it,” said Danowski, who is entering his 33rd season as a college coach, and his ninth as head of Duke’s program. “One could arguably say this is the toughest conference in the history of our sport.
“As always, until you play the games, you don’t know how things will play out. But going from the offseason and looking forward, we can certainly make the statement that this is the toughest conference in the history of our sport.”
The six schools that make up this year’s ACC have combined for 23 NCAA titles and 46 appearances in the national title game since the NCAA added men’s lacrosse as a national championship sport in 1971.
The Orange leads the pack with a NCAA-best 10 championships and 16 title-game appearances (second all-time to Johns Hopkins’ 18), including last year’s loss to Duke in the NCAA title game.
Virginia has won the Division I title five times in nine tries, the Tar Heels four titles in five appearances, the Blue Devils have two titles in four tries, Maryland has two titles in 11 appearances, and the Fighting Irish made it to the 2010 NCAA title game.
“There’s really no ‘Johnny come lately’ in this group,” Danowski said. Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland “have been the dominant players in this sport for three decades or more.”
That has led to questions about not just who the nation’s best team is this season, but who could win the ACC.
Syracuse was the preseason No. 1 pick in the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association’s coaches poll; North Carolina and Duke came in No. 2 and No. 3, respectively; and all three teams received four first-place votes. Notre Dame was No. 5, the Terrapins No. 6 and the Cavaliers No. 7.
Yet in the lacrosse media poll conducted by equipment maker Warrior, the Blue Devils were picked as the preseason No. 1, with Syracuse No. 2 and the Tar Heels No. 3. The Fighting Irish were No. 5, Maryland No. 6 and Virginia No. 8.
“When six of the top eight teams are in the ACC, it’s just, well … ,” said Breschi, who is entering his 17th season as a head coach, his seventh with North Carolina.
“It was tough when we had just four teams, and we thought it was the toughest conference in the nation then. Now that we’ve added Notre Dame and Syracuse, there’s no question that it’s a great conference.”
As for the ACC title itself, Syracuse was a close preseason favorite, edging Duke and North Carolina by one point in a poll conducted among the conference’s coaches. Virginia, Notre Dame and Maryland completed the voting.
A good judge of the ACC’s talent level came in early January during the 2014 Major League Lacrosse collegiate draft, with eight teams making picks from this season’s senior class.
Of the 64 players chosen over eight rounds, nearly a third – 20 in all – were from one of the six ACC schools, including four of the first eight players taken.
Duke led all NCAA teams with six players picked, including two – attackman Jordan Wolf to the Rochester (N.Y.) Rattlers and long-stick midfielder/defender Luke Duprey to the New York Lizards – going in the first round.
Maryland had four players picked, including defender Michael Ehrhardt going at No. 7 to the Charlotte Hounds. North Carolina, Virginia and Syracuse had three players each taken, and Notre Dame one.
“That’s why the kids end up going to these schools,” said Breschi. “Because they have great programs and great tradition, and have a chance to win the national championship. But the toughest part now is just winning the ACC championship.”