DURHAM — When Duke won the lacrosse national championship in 2013, it took some time for the senior leadership to emerge and for the Blue Devils to show signs of being up to that caliber.
This year, there was no such wait for the elder statesmen to take over, and Duke administered a historic beating to one of the sport’s blue bloods in the middle of the regular season that had the coaches imagining hoisting the title trophy on Memorial Day months in advance.
It was the 21-7 win over Syracuse on March 23 – the Orange’s worst loss since 1977 – that got Duke coach John Danowski thinking maybe, just maybe, the 2014 Blue Devils would win the national title, the program’s second straight and third in five years. And that feeling proved true Monday, when Duke topped Notre Dame 11-9, igniting talk of lacrosse’s newest dynasty.
Danowski isn’t sure he sees it that way.
“Sometimes it’s hard to put into context,” he said, “because you’re just living in the moment.”
With school out for the summer, those moments have revolved around Duke lacrosse. There was Monday yoga and Tuesday nights at the movies (viewings included “Godzilla” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” with enough concession stand snacks to fuel 43 18-to-23-year-olds and one 29-year-old). There were daily practices and weight room sessions, trips to Newark, Del., and Baltimore. And when it was over, when the seniors hoisted the trophy for the second consecutive year, there were feelings of accomplishment – though for some it was bittersweet.
“It was awesome to win, don’t get me wrong,” senior Christian Walsh said. “But it was also kind of sad knowing that was the last time you were going to put on a Duke jersey. It’s obviously the way you want to go out, but still, knowing that that’s it was definitely a hard moment to realize.”
Walsh was a member of Duke’s first midfield line, which was responsible for nearly half of Duke’s 11 goals, taking advantage of the Fighting Irish’s hesitancy to devote more defensive resources (another long pole) to stopping that explosive group. But Walsh’s greatest contribution may have come on the sideline, when the going got tough.
Halfway through the third quarter, the Blue Devils were up 8-2 and Notre Dame looked all but finished. And then the Irish scored six of the next seven goals to pull within one with five minutes to play.
“I was just trying to keep everybody calm and realize that, hey, this is the sport we play; this is what happened, now let’s go make another big play,” Walsh said. “Jordan (Wolf) did a good job of doing that for us.”
Wolf, a senior who set a new program record for points in a season (103), set up Kyle Keenan for a goal to give the Blue Devils a 10-8 lead with 2:39 to go. After Notre Dame countered with another goal, it was Wolf that delivered the dagger, beating a double team out of a timeout and firing into an empty net with 23.6 seconds remaining.
Wolf correctly identified that the Irish had a right-handed defender (Matt Landis) playing his left side, so Wolf played to his strong side, easily blowing by Landis and burying the ball in the back of the net.
“I knew it was the last play of my career, so I figured I’d give it my all,” Wolf said.
That was just one of several key senior moments. In the midst of the Irish run, late in the fourth quarter, defender Luke Duprey – playing with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee – chased down a ground ball, giving the ball back to the Blue Devils. Fowler won the game’s most critical faceoff with 49.6 seconds remaining and Duke clinging to a one-goal lead. (When asked about Notre Dame’s coach suggesting he made his move too early on that faceoff win, Fowler said he thought the Irish’s Liam O’Connor had moved early on an earlier faceoff, and he based his timing off of that). And defenseman Henry Lobb was able to hold Notre Dame’s Matt Kavanagh in check, neutralizing the Irish’s best offensive option.
All of that added up to another national title banner in Durham, with this year’s seniors departing as the most decorated class in program history—two NCAA championships, four Final Fours. Continuing with tradition, the group of seniors will head south of the border to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to cap off the season. It’s not quite one more game, but it’s a nice consolation prize.
“It’s definitely weird when you win, too, because we always try to play for another week together, a couple more days,” Fowler said. “With the championship game, it’s alright, this is it, no matter what happens today, it’s over.”
Keeley: 919.829.4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley