CJ Carpenter will join a long list of Duke attackmen who have started an NCAA lacrosse tournament semifinal when he takes the field Saturday.
It’s only fitting since he’s spent time around the Blue Devils’ program since he was about 4 years old and his parents attended lacrosse final fours involving Duke since before he was born.
No, really. His parents have made an annual trip to the Memorial Day weekend event since the early 1990s. A little more than two weeks after Duke made its first appearance in the semifinals, Jolene Nagel gave birth to CJ. Nagel would become Duke’s volleyball coach two years later.
Samuel Carpenter, CJ’s father, played lacrosse at Division III Middlebury and has since coached at the college and club level. That combination provided a sublime intersection of school and sport.
“Ever since I could remember, I’ve had a stick in my hand,” CJ Carpenter said this week as the second-seeded Blue Devils (13-4) prepared to face third-seeded Virginia (15-3) in Philadelphia. “My dad had posters and pictures up in the garage. I got a lacrosse goal when I was really young. I’ve always been around the game and I’ve always loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad moment.”
Carpenter’s parents were close with former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler and his family, so he wound up going to practices and games. That continued on a lesser scale when current coach John Danowski arrived after the 2006 season. It made Duke’s athletic facilities something of a playground for CJ and his younger brother Tyler (a long stick midfielder set to join the Blue Devils next season) as they grew up.
“The kids have really been influenced by it,” Nagel said. “It’s such an incredible institution. They understand they have to do well in school. They’re fortunate as lacrosse players that when they were young, there were great models around. CJ was able to be in Cameron a lot and on campus a lot and on the fields a lot. It’s just been incredible for our family.”
Ask Carpenter, a 5-10, 190-pound senior who also played for Durham Riverside High, his favorite Duke lacrosse player from over the years and there’s a deep list of guys who warrant a mention. There’s Matt Danowski and Ned Crotty, both members of the Blue Devils’ current staff, as well as Max Quinzani and Jordan Wolf.
He can recall details of plenty of Duke postseason games from the past, including when another CJ --- Costabile --- sealed the 2010 national title game with an overtime goal. Little wonder Carpenter had no interest in prolonging his recruiting process when John Danowski offered him a spot in the program.
“I didn’t have to think about it,” Carpenter said. “Once he said I had a spot, I immediately called the other schools and said ‘Yeah, no thanks. It’s not for me.’”
He came off the bench his first two seasons, but suffered a torn ACL toward the end of the 2017 season. He took a redshirt year last spring, but was healthy enough to practice as the Blue Devils finished as the national runner-up.
After starting the first two games, Carpenter slid back to a reserve role this year. But he’s re-emerged as a crafty, opportunistic piece of the Duke offense. He has 15 goals and five assists over the last six games, including a three-goal effort in last weekend’s quarterfinal defeat of Notre Dame.
Considering his parents’ background, it is unsurprising Carpenter’s greatest traits are skills and smarts, as well as one coaches always love: Low maintenance.
Nagel recalled a time last year when the two talked on the phone around 10:30 one night. Carpenter was walking to a bus stop after spending time working on his shot.
“These are the kinds of things he’s done all the time for a long time,” Nagel said. “It’s fun to see him be so comfortable out there on the field. …I think that’s where his happy place is. He’s very committed. He never complains. It’s ‘Whatever I can do to help the team.’ I know that sounds like he’s a perfect kid. He’s not, but he is a coach’s kid.”
And now comes the chance he’s dreamed of while watching the Blue Devils in nearly all of their previous 11 semifinal appearances: The chance to take the field in a Duke uniform on the final weekend of the season.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” Carpenter said. “These will be the biggest games I’ve ever played in. I think I learned a lot on the sideline last year, kind of watching it all year --- not at a distance but with a different perspective. This year, we have unfinished business to tend to coming back and we’re hungry.”
Duke vs. Virginia
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia