Taking the lead is Wojo's forte Duke: His mature direction of a young Blue Devils team is just another uphill success for Steve Wojciechowski.

January 02, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

It has to be a delicate job, directing the 10 other prep All-Americans on the Duke basketball team. Corralling all those egos, however, is not the most challenging assignment ever given Steve Wojciechowski.

"I went to the ABCD camp at Eastern Michigan one summer in high school," Wojciechowski said. "My team consisted of nine Russians and me. None of them spoke English, but I communicated through hand signals and facial expressions, and ended up coming in third in the whole camp. I played really well. The thing I did was lead.

"I was put on that team because I wasn't initially invited to the camp. I was a late addition, a fill-in."

Whoever thought that the last-minute substitute would overcome distressing first half to his college career and close it by running a team that has legitimate aspirations for an NCAA title?

When No. 3 Duke meets No. 20 Maryland at Cole Field House tomorrow (8 p.m.), it will be the 46th straight start for Wojciechowski, a self-described "pest" of a point guard who grew up in Severna Park and began his basketball education at Cardinal Gibbons High School.

Last week, the Blue Devils (11-1) lost freshman center Elton Brand for the season to a broken foot. Coach Mike Krzyzewski simply plugged in another rookie with gaudy credentials, and Chris Burgess put up 14 points and eight rebounds in Tuesday's 50-point pounding of Portland State.

The "all-for-one, one-for-all" spiel sounds rote, but given Krzyzewski's success -- 412 wins and two NCAA titles since he came to Duke in 1980, it's a proven formula. Still, somebody on the court has to keep all of that talent purring, and lately it's been Wojciechowski.

"Wojo" was The Sun's Male Athlete of the Year after an assortment of All-Metro honors in soccer and basketball with the Crusaders, but there was skepticism about a 5-foot-11 kid from suburbia making it in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

There was a freshman year in which Wojciechowski lost, in order, high school mentor Ray Mullis to cancer, Krzyzewski to a back condition and then his own starting position. As a sophomore, he fought his way back into the rotation, but even that season was clouded by a March ankle sprain and an idle month of reflection.

"I was the 'McDonald's All-American who was going to be the next Bobby Hurley' who had failed," Wojciechowski said. "I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, and because I wasn't ready to declare myself for the NBA draft, I was a failure. He [Krzyzewski] didn't see it that way. He kept his belief. He really gave me an opportunity to fulfill my dreams."

Krzyzewski unsuccessfully recruited another point and tried shooting guard Trajan Langdon there, but Wojciechowski had other ideas. He improved his conditioning and aggression -- no ++ small feat for someone who's always relished floor burns -- and simply refused to stay the eighth or ninth man.

"At one point, he was very down, but he never gave up," Krzyzewski said. "Not only has he been successful, he's been unbelievably successful. Not that a measure of success should be whether or not you're on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but 14 months before that, I'm sure nobody would have thought that Steve would have been in that situation."

A junior season that started in doubt ended with Wojciechowski a second-team ACC all-star. His assist-to-turnover ratio was 3.03-1, a school record, better even than Hurley was able to do during the back-to-back NCAA championship seasons in 1991 and '92.

"How many people realize he was voted MVP by his teammates?" said Quin Snyder, a Duke assistant coach who was the Blue Devils' point guard in the late 1980s. "He embraces the whole job. He wants to be the leader. You see him doing all of the gritty stuff, but he's also the guy telling the joke to Burgess at the foul line to keep him loose."

Wojciechowski isn't going to be a longshoreman in Dundalk, like his father and his father before him. Watch the co-captain guide a young team, and it's as if he's already begun his coaching career.

"To be honest, I can't look ahead and be the best I can be," Wojciechowski said. "Being a good college player, being at Duke, I don't need anything more."

His energy got the Blue Devils going in a defeat of defending NCAA champion Arizona at the Maui Invitational, where he was named MVP. Wojciechowski is averaging a career-high 8.2 points, and has made 43.8 percent of his three-pointers. The return of the five-second count, where a defender can force a jump ball by closely guarding the man with the ball, has made his defense even more effective.

Wojciechowski has been a fan favorite at Duke, where the Cameron Crazies identify with a player who can be as annoying as they are. They bark when he's hounding an opposing point guard.

On the road, it's the polar opposite, and Wojciechowski wants to make the most of the last game in his home state tomorrow. He had a chance to quiet Cole last year, but he was called for a charge with 2.2 seconds left when the Blue Devils were down two.

"I'm kind of a whipping boy everywhere I go," Wojciechowski said, "but Maryland is a little more brutal than most places, a little more personal. Still, it's a fun place to play."

These days, Wojciechowski is having fun wherever he goes.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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