Commentary

Experienced Duke returns stronger

Blue Devils lacrosse ready to contend for first national title

Updated: October 30, 2009, 4:34 PM ET
By Danielle Bernstein | Inside Lacrosse

A year ago, Duke entered its fall season surrounded by questions. The biggest: How would the Blue Devils replace two of the best players in their history? The departures of Matt Danowski and Zack Greer left gaping holes at attack, and many prognosticators thought Duke would struggle to a last-place ACC finish.

As it turned out, the Blue Devils were just fine.

Although Duke did not cruise through the regular season like it did in a one-loss 2008 season, the Blue Devils peaked in time to win their conference and advance to the national semifinals before losing to eventual champion Syracuse.

Now, Duke is once again an experienced squad -- and one that seems to have silenced any doubts about whether it belongs among the elite Division I programs.

Fall Focus

The Blue Devils concluded their fall season Oct. 24 with their final Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage. With a more experienced team, Duke's fall had a much different feel than it did last year, when several players were learning new positions. Rather than spending time adjusting to new roles and developing chemistry, the team was able to jump right into more advanced aspects of its game.

[+] EnlargeZach Howell & Ned Crotty
Courtesy of Duke PhotographyZach Howell (left) and Ned Crotty (right) both return, though Howell's starting job may be in jeopardy.

"To be able to come in knowing who's playing what and already having the chemistry from last year going to this year is definitely a confidence booster," midfielder-turned-attackman Ned Crotty said. "We have a lot of guys with experience coming back who played together last year, so having that experience and that chemistry already built helps to make this fall much smoother than last fall."

That could pay dividends in the spring. A second consecutive slow start seems unlikely, as the team should not have to suffer another two-loss February while it tries to develop chemistry.

Fresh Faces

Despite the Blue Devils' overall experience, they could get some significant contributions from freshmen this season. Josh Offit has practiced with the first-team attack and could be in line to start over junior Zach Howell, and fellow freshman Dan Wigrizer may challenge for the starting goaltender position left vacant by the graduation of Rob Schroeder.

Duke's freshman class also includes top-100 recruits David Lawson, the eighth-ranked player in his year, No. 27 Jake Tripucka, No. 41 Bill Conners and No. 84 Greg DeLuca. Eddie Loftus becomes the third Loftus brother to suit up for head coach John Danowski, and Henry Meyer, Jimmy O'Neill and Spencer Peterson will add depth for the Blue Devils.

"They're all big, they're all strong, they're all fast," Crotty said. "Coming from high school to college, obviously that's a big jump. But within a couple weeks, there were guys who started stepping up. We've got a lot of guys at a lot of different positions who are making a fight for playing time, and anytime you have that, where you have freshmen coming in and making that kind of impact that quickly, it's definitely a good sign."

Lingering Questions

Who will step in for Ryan McFadyen?
The 6-foot-7 McFadyen had been a staple of the Duke defense for years before graduating in 2009. He was selected by the Colorado Mammoth in the NLL Entry Draft, and now his former team must find a way to replace his production. At this point, junior Tom Montelli appears to be the most likely candidate to fill in on the back line.

How potent will the offense be?
Prior to the start of the 2009 season, just one of the Blue Devils' three attackmen -- Max Quinzani -- had gotten regular minutes at that position in collegiate action. The choices for the other two spots were not finalized until the spring, and as a result, it took a while for Quinzani, Howell and Crotty to jell. Howell and Crotty agreed that the offense did not truly start to click until a March 28 win over Dartmouth.

Starting with that contest, Duke put up double-digit goals in each of its remaining games until the 10-goal loss to the Orange in the national semifinals. Expect that level of production -- and not the six-goal outputs characteristic of early losses to Harvard and Cornell -- in 2010.

How dangerous is an experienced Ned Crotty?
In 2009, Crotty had 78 points, including a Division I-best 55 assists. He was named the USILA Attackman of the Year and earned first team All-America honors.

He did all that while playing attack for the first time in his Blue Devils career.

Although Crotty had inverted quite a bit as a midfielder, he had to learn the footwork associated with being an attackman. Now, that's not an issue.

"Everything runs through you. Not only physically, but mentally it's a different game [than being a midfielder]," Crotty said. "I'm really excited for this year and this fall because I'm getting to focus more on [running the offense and reading defenses] as opposed to last year, when I had to get a crash course on how to play attack and things to do. Now I can focus more on the mental stuff and try to be more of a quarterback out there."

That must be a scary thought for opposing defenses.

Can Duke get over the hump?
The Blue Devils have established themselves as an NCAA tournament regular under Danowski, who has a 50-9 record in three seasons in Durham. But Duke is still searching for that elusive first national championship.

In the past five seasons, the Blue Devils have fallen twice in the title game and twice in the semifinals. Is this the year that everything comes together in May?

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