The Blue Devils are in the NCAA Tournament. And that’s about where the similarities with the previous nine years of lacrosse coach John Danowski’s tenure end.
For the first time since 2001, Duke opens tournament play on the road, traveling to No. 7 Loyola for a noon start Saturday. But after their NCAA tournament selection show experience, the Blue Devils are just thankful to still be playing.
After wrapping up their season with a 15-8 win at Boston University, the Blue Devils boarded a commercial Jet Blue flight bound for Durham. While in the air, they were able to use the TVs built into the seats to watch the NCAA lacrosse tournament’s selection show.
At 11-7 overall with an appearance in the ACC championship game and wins over Syracuse, Notre Dame, Loyola (Md.) and Marquette, Duke felt good about its chance to land one of the eight national seeds. But when those eight teams were revealed, Duke did not pop up (though those four opponents did).
“We’re sitting in our suits on the plane next to everyone else that flew commercial. It was pretty nerve-wracking,” senior midfielder (and ACC offensive player of the year) Myles Jones said. “I was sitting behind (assistant coach) and Coach (John) D. Coach D put his fist behind him and gave me a fist bump even though we weren’t on the board yet. I calmed down a little bit.”
Turns out that fist-bump was more of the wishful thinking type. One by one, the opponents for the eight seeded teams were unveiled. The selection of Navy caught the Blue Devils a bit off guard, and they grew anxious. And with 15 of the 16 revealed, Duke still wasn’t on the board.
“We thought we didn’t make it,” John Danowski said.
Danowski’s mind drifted back to his time at Hofstra and his 2002 team that went 11-3 and ended the season with a nine-game winning streak with a win over Duke as an exclamation point. But when the brackets came out, there was Duke and no Hofstra. And Danowski had been shocked.
“And that was the last time we watched it as a family and the players all in one room,” he said. “I’ve never done that again. Learned my lesson.”
Waiting for coaches’ interviews throughout the show and commercials to end on a commercial flight wasn’t exactly fun, either.
“Definitely nervous,” senior midfielder Deemer Class said. “Don’t want to assume anything.”
But then, finally, with one spot remaining, Duke’s name appeared. And opposite Loyola, no less, a team the Blue Devils drilled 15-6 on March 12. A cheer erupted. There’s no information on how many of the unsuspecting non-Duke affiliated passengers were startled.
“Once we got picked, everyone was able to sit back in their seats, everyone was walking up and down the aisle, saying ‘let’s go.’ ” Jones said. “We were ready to play as soon as we got off the plane.”
Jones and Class represent the best of Duke’s offense, as the two form what is quite likely the best midfield duo in school history. Jones is the ACC offensive player of the year and was the No. 1 pick of the major league lacrosse draft in January, and Class has scored more goals than any other midfielder in program history. His team-high 49 goals this year – with more surely to come – put him on the brink of rare company. Just five times in Division I history has a midfielder scored 50 or more goals on the season, and it has only happened once since 1990 (Stony Brook’s Kevin Crowley had 51 in 2010).
“He’s a very confident shooter,” Jones said of Class. “He works hard, he shoots all the time, and he gets (mad) when he doesn’t hit his shots. His perfectionist attitude and the way he wants to be the best shooter and best midfielder in the country propelled him into scoring four, five goals and it being an average day.”
There’s no doubt that Jones’s presence helps Class and vice versa – overcommit defensively to one of them, and the other is still there.
“It’s almost like passing the ball to Steph Curry, running toward the bench because you know it’s going in,” Jones said of Class. “I throw it to him and have my hands up before he even takes the shot. Usually it goes down.”
Class isn’t too shabby of a basketball player himself, according to senior defenseman Jamie Ikeda. The two took a basketball PE class during the fall of their junior years.
Without hearing Jones, Danowski – speaking in a corner of Cameron Indoor Stadium – went to a basketball comparison for Class, too.
“Kind of like in hoops, how some guys can always get open, he just gets to spots on the field, he can walk to spots, sometimes he runs to spots – Deemer feels the game,” Danowski said. “He’s a terrific shooter, but he also knows where to get to when he doesn’t have the ball. And that’s a big part of his game.”
Class, like the rest of the Blue Devils, could feel those anxious nerves while watching the NCAA selection show last Sunday. With that bit of turbulence behind them, though, Duke is primed for another Final Four run.
NCAA lacrosse tournament
Duke at Loyola
When: noon Saturday
North Carolina at Marquette
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday