Duke began its pursuit of a third consecutive NCAA championship with a pair of games over the weekend. On Saturday, the Blue Devils travelled down 40/85 to face High Point, and came away with a hard-fought 16-13 win over the Panthers. On Sunday, Air Force came to town for a rematch of last year's NCAA tournament game, and Duke won handily, 13-7.
The Blue Devils came into the weekend ranked third (behind Denver and Notre Dame) in the pre-season media poll. Junior offensive midfielder Myles Jones and senior short-stick defensive midfielder Will Haus (the third overall pick in the Major League Lacrosse draft) were named pre-season first team All-Americans.
The weekend began with one of those announcements you hope to never hear: suspensions for violation of team rules. Senior attackman/midfielder Kyle Keenan, senior long-stick midfielder Brian Dailey, and junior defenseman Chris Coady are out indefinitely.
We later learned that senior goaltender Kyle Turri was injured in practice on Friday and would miss the weekend. Junior attackman Case Matheis, nursing a hamstring problem, did not start either game, but was in and out of the lineup.
Saturday: At High Point
The Panthers are the pre-season favorites in the Southern Conference, and they showed why on Super Bowl Sunday with an impressive 15-10 win over Delaware. Attackmen Dan Lomas and Matt Thistle led the way with five goals each against the Blue Hens.
There were plenty of surprises in the Blue Devils line-up. Sophomore Jack Bruckner, who played on the second midfield in 2014, lined up at attack alongside junior Chad Cohan and freshman Justin Guterding Sophomore Thomas Zenker moved from SSDM to join Myles Jones and Deemer Class on the first offensive unit. The second unit consisted of junior converted attackman Seamus Connelly, senior Tanner Scott, and highly-touted freshman Jake Seau. Freshman Peter Welch took Dailey's slot as the primary LSM, and grad student Pat Resch, a transfer from Dartmouth, jointed Haus as the primary SSDMs. Senior Jack Rowe took the majority of face-offs over the course of the weekend, aided on Sunday by younger brother Kyle, a sophomore transfer from Stony Brook. The starting close defense was an all-sophomore unit: converted LSM Ethan Powley, Brian Dunne, and Ian Yanulis.
Duke came flying out of the gate, with Haus finding Cohan in transition for an easy finish after 50 seconds. Goals by Jones and Guterding made it 3-0 before Michael LeClair got the Panthers on the board with 4:39 to go. The quarter ended with Duke leading, 5-2.
The Panthers returned the favor in the second quarter, outscoring Duke 5-2 to forge a 7-7 tie at halftime. Duke's midfield defense was sloppy, repeatedly sliding late or not at all, and High Point took full advantage, with five different players scoring, including twice on extra-man.
Duke opened the second half on a 5-0 run in eight minutes, featuring three from Guterding, but High Point refused to go away. Sophomore midfielder Cole Carns rang up three of his own in a 6-1 run to tie the game at 13 with 10:19 to go, but two big saves by Aaron preserved the tie until Jones took matters into his own hands. He bullied his way into scoring position to give Duke the lead with 6:34 to go, then turned provider, drawing a slide and dishing to a wide-open Class. Duke's defense held, and Guterding finished a six-goal afternoon with an empty-netter with 0:14 remaining.
Guterding led Duke in scoring with six goals. Jones contributed three goals and two assists, and Class and Matheis had two goals each. Carns led the Panthers with four goals. Duke's close defense was sensational: Powley shut out Thistle, and Yanulis held Lomas in check (all of Lomas' three goals came in extra-man situations). The Panthers' Austin Geisler was superb in goal, with 18 saves. Jack Rowe won 20 of 33 faceoffs for Duke, helping offset 14 Duke turnovers to give the Blue Devils a plus-six possession margin. Both teams' offenses were clicking, with Duke putting up a 34 percent shooting percentage on the way to 44.4% offensive efficiency, and High Point at 46.4/43.3.
Sunday: vs. Air Force
The Falcons came to town for their season opener in rebuilding mode, after last year's surprise ECAC championship and NCAA play-in game win. They lost four of their top six scorers and two of the four defenders who rang up double digits in caused turnovers.
The Falcons started like a team playing its opener. They took two bad penalties early, Duke ran the same man-up set twice, and twice Jones found Bruckner all alone five yards out for easy finishes. After that, Air Force settled down and did what a team hoping for an upset hopes to do. They held their own on faceoffs, took care of the ball, held Duke's offense in check, and patiently ran an offense designed to exploit Duke's early-season midfield-defense foibles. The result was a 5-1 run over 17 minutes, capped by a slick Chris Walsch goal off a feed from Nick Hruby with 4:12 to go in the second quarter to take a 5-3 lead.
After that, it was all downhill. Class scored unassisted from the left alley with 1:32 to go, sending Duke to halftime down only one, and Bruckner tied it in transition on an assist from Jamie Ikeda 27 seconds into the third quarter. Air Force briefly re-took the lead on a James Burke goal with 7:16 to go, but 13 seconds later Justin Guterding got the first of four goals in 9:20 to trigger a 5-0 Duke run that put the game away. Duke started to empty the bench midway through the fourth quarter-in all, 36 players got in-and while Air Force got one back, Cohan and Justin George added late goals for a 13-7 win.
Guterding led the Blue Devils again with four goals; he shot 10 for 18 for the weekend. Jones and Bruckner added hat tricks of their own; one of Myles' goals was an attempted feed to a wide-open Bruckner that banked in off the helmet of an Air Force defender. Myles also contributed three assists. Aaron had ten saves. The Brothers Rowe combined to win 14 of 24 faceoffs, giving Duke a 59.6% mark for the weekend. For Air Force, six different players scored, Austin Smith leading the way with two goals. Doug Gouchoe had 13 saves, including a sensational stop at the second-quarter buzzer to temporarily preserve the Falcons' lead.
Duke's close defense turned in another standout performance, led by Powley, who held the Falcons' leading returning scorer, attackman Keith Dreyer, to one goal and no assists. The midfield defense was improved, but still shaky, epitomized by one comically bad slide that led to Smith's fourth-quarter consolation goal.
Duke shot 31.7 percent on the way to 41.7% offensive efficiency; reflecting the overnight improvement in Duke's defense, the Falcons were 21.7/26.9. Duke had a possession margin of plus five, and won the ground ball battle 35-28.
A lot to like, some things to like less.
Welcome to Duke, Justin Guterding. The freshman attackman was as-advertised and then some. Among the other freshman, Peter Welch was good at LSM, David Gill played well at SSDM in the closing stages of the Air Force game, and Mitch Russell forced a fine save from Gouchoe late on. Jake Seau, running on the second midfield, has done some positive things that haven't been rewarded on the score-sheet, but he's still waiting for that moment when the game slows down for him.
The close defense has been a very pleasant surprise so far.
Myles Jones is turning into the lacrosse equivalent of Shane Battier. Whatever play Duke needs made, in any situation, he just makes it. Whether it's a goal, an assist, a one-man clear that includes leveling an opposing defender, or a lung-busting run back on defense to break up a potential transition opportunity, the man can do it all. We are privileged to have him in a Duke uniform, and to watch him for two more years.
Midfield defense and man-down defense need a lot of work, and they need it soon. The Devils go down to Georgia this weekend for a neutral-site matchup with top-ranked Denver on Saturday and a game at Mercer on Sunday. The Pioneers are loaded on offense, and their defense is underrated. They can give us a very difficult afternoon. Mercer may be a different story, but they will show up and they will play hard, because they can make their season with a win.