Commentary

Duke not swayed by No. 1 ranking

Updated: February 19, 2010, 12:35 PM ET
By Chris Hempson | Inside Lacrosse

They've made the Final Four the past three seasons. They've won three consecutive ACC Championships. And they return their top four scorers. So it should come as no surprise that the Duke Blue Devils are topping preseason polls -- including our own.

[+] EnlargeDuke lacrosse
Duke AthleticsZach Howell and Ned Crotty will be key players for Duke this season.

But coach John Danowski still isn't reading too much into these generous accolades. In fact, you might say he's doing just the opposite.

When Danowski gets a preseason ranking in print, he calls his squad together. He then breaks out a match, lights it and proceeds to burn the ranking.

"It's meaningless, just a topic for conversation," he says.

Point taken, coach.

Yet even so, Danowski has been expanding his speech about rankings this season. He has done more than just set paper on fire.

"You still have to talk about it because other people are talking about it," he says. "Their parents, their friends. The nice part about it is [the players] know our expectations. Your opponents are going to come at you every time you play. You have to be ready."

Right now, it appears the Blue Devils are. Danowski says that before the Bucknell game -- a 12-11 Duke victory -- 45 of his players practiced. This week, all 46 partook. It's the healthiest his team has been all year, and Danowski couldn't be more pleased.

Manning the Net

With the graduation of Rob Schroeder and his 8.2 goals against average, the Blue Devils are looking to fill their goalkeeping position.

Danowski has four keepers on his roster, but none have extended starting experience. In fact, senior Devon Sherwood was the only goalie to see any action last year -- and that was in limited action in just four games.

Thus far, Danowski is not exactly sure what he's got at the keeper position. But right now, the nod is going to freshman Dan Wigrizer. He was an Under Armour All-American his senior year of high school and did play the entire game against Bucknell, granted he did allow 11 goals.

Danowski had words for all four of his goalkeepers afterward.

"'Dan just did what any four of you could have done,'" he said to them. "'At some point, we may be asking anyone of you to step up.'"

For the time being, Danowski will be asking his whole team to make the goalkeeping transition easier. That especially means preseason All-American choices Parker McKee and Michael Manley with the defense. The pair saw action in a total of 37 games last year and will likely have to continue to be leaders in the back -- with a freshman manning the net that is.

"Good goaltending is a function of those in front of him," Danowski said. "There are ways in which you can help out. The other positions can protect your goalkeeper. I don't know what's going to happen down the road. We have experience in front of the goalkeeper and that should help us."

Where's Crotty?

The biggest helper for Duke, however, is probably fifth-year Ned Crotty. He's done it all during his time in Durham and has racked up the individual accolades to prove it. The one piece missing in his collection, though, is an NCAA title.

This year, especially with such an immense talent as Crotty, Danowski isn't quite sure how he'll use his star. On one hand, he can let Crotty loose at attack -- he did score 23 goals last year during his first season in attack. Yet contrarily, the expanded reign and creative style that Crotty plays with could be just as effective in the midfield. He's well-versed as a midfielder, and though he played attack last season, he did tally 55 assists. It's a nice problem to have, and Danowski knows it.

"A player is a player is a player," Danowski said of Crotty. "Maybe put him up [attack] or in the midfield, where they have more freedom, but they're playing less time. Do I keep him on the field for all 60 minutes or 15 runs or a combination of the both? I expect at some point, it'll be a combination."

In Duke's win over Bucknell, Crotty accumulated a goal and five assists. So it's obvious he can do both. And as Danowski mentioned earlier in the preseason, if he can find the right players to attack, he has no qualms with shifting Crotty to midfield.

For that, perhaps enter Zach Howell.

The junior has certainly impressed throughout the early campaign, shining in the preseason against Ohio State and then earlier this week against Bucknell. In fact, in the Blue Devils' overtime win, it was Howell who netted the game-winner in overtime.

Quite the way to start the year.

"Zach is a self-made man," Danowski said. "He has worked really hard at learning the position and mastering the fundamentals of being an attack man. His shooting has improved, and thus, so has his confidence. He is just a very solid, fundamentally sound player."

Duke has numerous such players this year, and all have one objective.

"This particular group doesn't know anything but playing in the Final Four," Danowski said. "The one thing they haven't achieved is winning a championship. I don't know that ratings are important to them."

That may be, but if preseason rankings are indicative of Duke's finish, this group won't leave the season empty-handed.

Make sure to check out the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils as they take on Maryland at the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic on March 6 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

For more on college lacrosse, check out Inside Lacrosse.