Danowski has Duke primed for Syracuse game

After early-season struggles, Blue Devils are back on track

April 01, 2011|Mike Preston

Duke coach John Danowski liked the warm and fuzzy feeling that surrounded his program after the Blue Devils won a national championship last May, but no one on his staff got a free membership to a nearby health club, and there weren't any pay raises.

Maybe Danowski might get one now.

In a supposed transition season because the Blue Devils lost nearly a third of last year's team to graduation, Duke (8-2) is ranked No. 4 after having won seven straight and is in position to knock off unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Syracuse (7-0) on Sunday in the Big City Classic at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Near the midway point of the season, Danowski has to be one of the top candidates for national Coach of the Year. There are always these little whispers about how Danowski can't match wits with the other top coaches in lacrosse, how he isn't tough enough and how he won with the players of former coach Mike Pressler and on and on and on …

And at Duke, all they keep doing is winning and winning and winning …

"You like the karma, and all the warmth that comes with winning that national championship," Danowski said. "You feel good about it, but after a while you're eager to get coaching again. You come back, and nearly 30 percent of your team is different in terms of talent and personality. You have fifth-year seniors who didn't get to play a lot the year before, and now they think it's their turn. You have freshmen who are eager to play and they want to make a name for themselves. So, as far as winning a national championship the year before, we didn't talk about it much. We didn't do it on purpose, but we wanted a natural progression."

It took a while for Duke to find an offensive chemistry. The Blue Devils lost their first two games, the first a 12-7 setback to Notre Dame, which wasn't a big problem. But then Duke lost to Penn, 7-3, and that caught everyone's attention around the country.

It also raised Danowski's eyebrows.

"At 1-2, I was thinking we weren't very good," Danowski said. "It has been a long time since I had coached a young team, and we have five or six freshmen and sophomores playing regularly. We had defensive middies a year ago now playing offense, and attackmen now playing midfield. It just caused our staff to stop and take stock in what we were trying to do."

Danowski moved freshman midfielders Jordan Wolf (18 goals, 10 assists) and Christian Walsh (11, 7) back to their natural positions of attack, joining senior Zach Howell (25, 8). Since then, Duke has gone from averaging five goals a game to 12.9.

Danowski also became a bit stricter in practice, in contrast to his reputation as a players' coach. It was a gamble, despite it being so early in the season. When coaches make changes in routines, it's usually the result of losing, and sometimes a sign of panic.

"We've always been loose, and we want our kids to have fun," Danowski said. "But I did talk to them about some things and let them know I was not delighted in scoring only three or five goals in our losses. I just thought we had to become quieter, more disciplined and focused during our practice time.

"We were struggling offensively. I think some of our older guys were trying too hard. We really didn't need them to be Ned Crotty or Max Quinzani, but just the best they could be. … Wolf and Walsh have played well for us, and it's unusual to have two freshmen on attack at this level."

Duke has gotten good play from several other freshmen, such as defensemen Chris Hipps and Luke Duprey, and attackman Josh Dionne. The leadership has come from upperclassmen like senior defenseman Tom Montelli, junior long-stick midfielder CJ Costabile, sophomore defenseman Bill Conners and sophomore goalie Dan Wigrizer.

"I'm incredibly impressed with the turnaround that Duke has had, and they're actually having a better regular season up to this point than at this point in 2010," said ESPN analyst Mark Dixon. "I think they had lost three games even before they got out of the month of March. I think you really have to tip your cap to John Danowski and his coaching staff. They weren't afraid to make some changes."

Duke will make another strong run into the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments. But before the postseason, Duke has its shot at Syracuse on Sunday.

"They are the sleeping giant," Danowski said. "They keep getting everybody's best game, and you don't want them to wake up and this be the game because they have great athletes. We've got to be able to get up and down the field, and we're comfortable with that because that's what we do. But in those six-on-six situations, we've got to be able to handle their defensive pressure."


An earlier version of this article misspelled the last names of CJ Costabile, Dan Wigrizer and Zach Howell. The Sun regrets the errors.

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