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Some Days You Eat the Bear …And Some Days The Pioneers Eat You

The second consecutive weekend of back-to-back Saturday and Sunday games for the Duke men's lacrosse team resulted in a split.

Archive photo of David Lawson
Archive photo of David Lawson
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Blue Devils got a big taste of the medicine they dished out to opponents in 2013 and 2014, as Denver freshman faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste dominated, sending the top-ranked Pioneers to a 17-13 win in Kennesaw, GA. On Sunday, Duke bounced back, overcoming a mind-boggling 22-save performance by Mercer goaltender Mike Nugent to hand the Bears a 16-6 loss in their home opener.

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Saturday: The Trevor Baptiste Show

In some respects, Duke played extremely well on Saturday. The Blue Devils' offense was superb, and for about 42 minutes the Pioneers' fearsome offense was held more or less in check. Eventually, however, the Duke defense collapsed under the weight of an almost two-to-one possession deficit. The Pioneers used a 9-1 run over 12-1/2 minutes, beginning late in the third quarter, to turn a three-goal deficit into an insurmountable five-goal lead, and coasted home in their season opener.

It was a game of runs. Duke burst out to a 2-0 lead in the first 4:13 on goals by Myles Jones and Chad Cohan. Denver answered with a 4-0 run of its own; in a warning of things to come, two of the goals came when Pioneer attackers got lost just off the crease to Luke Aaron's right. Duke responded with a 6-1 run of its own, capped by a Cohan strike with :02 left in the half, to go to the locker room with a 8-5 lead. The Pioneers' marquee offensive threat, attackman Wesley Berg, was bottled up by Ethan Powley.

The Pioneers made a very smart halftime adjustment, switching their long-stick midfielders from Deemer Class to Jones; Myles was shut out in the second half. More importantly, they starved Duke of possession, and put unrelenting pressure on the Duke defense. Baptiste went 17-for-19 after halftime, giving Denver a remarkable 20-6 possession advantage in the half. Duke was superb when it had the ball, cashing in three of five third-quarter possessions to keep its halftime lead intact for almost 12 minutes, but you could see the defensive shape and discipline sliding away, and eventually the roof fell in. Denver midfielder Connor Cannizaro, a sophomore transfer from Maryland, led the onslaught, contributing two goals and three assists to the 9-1 run, attackman Jack Bobzien had three of his six goals, and midfielder Erik Adamson chipped in with a pair of goals. Most of the damage was done from point-blank range, as the Pioneers played beautiful, unselfish lacrosse. It was a master-class in making the extra pass.

Cannizaro was the offensive star of the game with eight points (3g, 5a). Bobzien and Adamson combined for ten goals. That the Pioneers did this much damage with their marquee player being held in check (Berg had one assist on the day) speaks to the depth and diversity of their firepower, and to the sophistication of offensive coordinator Matt Brown's system.

For Duke, Myles Jones and Justin Guterding again led the way, each recording three goals and two assists. Chad Cohan contributed his first career hat trick, and Jack Bruckner had two goals.

Baptiste's 25-for-34 day at the dot fueled a plus-17 possession advantage for Denver, who shot 37.8 percent on the way to 47.2 percent offensive efficiency. Duke shot 32.5 percent (they averaged over two shots per possession) and had an astronomical 68.4 percent offensive efficiency (13 goals on only 19 possessions).

Sunday: The Mike Nugent Show

The Blue Devils arrived in Macon looking for a bounce-back performance that would make head coach John Danowski only the second Division 1 coach to win 350 games. They got both, but not before Bears' goaltender Mike Nugent put on a memorable show.

In contrast to Saturday's controlled tempo, both teams came out looking to run, and run they did (76 total possessions, vs. 55 on Saturday). Mercer's Justin Evans won the opening face-off, and a slick two-man game behind the net freed James Tautkus for the opening goal at 3:34. It took Duke another four minutes to finally get on the board; Mercer went offside on a clearing attempt, and Will Haus took advantage of a quick restart to go end to end for his first goal of the season. Jack Bruckner and Seamus Connelly added goals for Duke to end the quarter with a 3-2 lead. Connelly's goal was especially sweet: isolated behind the net against a short-stick defender, he made a superb shake-and-bake to get separation, came around the corner to Nugent's right, and buried it near-side high. It was about the only mistake Nugent would make all day.

A 6-1 second quarter gave the Blue Devils a 9-3 halftime lead. Justin Guterding, who was mostly held in check by Mercer's 6'5" Colin Massa, and Thomas Zenker started the run, and Deemer Class chipped in a pair, including a superb finish in the left alley with :09 left. It could have been much worse for the Bears if Nugent hadn't made a series of highlight-reel saves, including an absolute robbery of Mitch Russell (playing in place of Case Matheis) on the doorstep.

After Myles Jones opened the second-half scoring with a zone-busting 15-yard bomb from the middle, the Bears got two back on Ben LeSane's second of the game and an extra-man blast from the wing by Matt Quinn to make it a five-goal game. Mercer would get no closer. Tanner Scott scored to trigger a 4-1 burst spanning the third and fourth quarters, and that was that. Coach Danowski emptied the bench down the stretch, and every Blue Devil who was dressed got in, some in unfamiliar positions--Morgan Kirby played LSM, and Joe Kruy got in on attack to join the long list of Blue Devils robbed by Nugent. Jake Seau got his first career goal on Ben Scharf's first career assist, and John Shaffer closed the scoring with an excellent split-dodge to the middle. Danny Fowler played the last seven minutes in relief of Luke Aaron in goal, and rang up three saves to complement a very nice 19-save performance by Aaron. Nugent was brilliant in a losing effort, finishing with 22 saves.

Myles Jones led the Duke offensive effort with three goals and four assists; with 23 points in the Blue Devils' first four games, he's on pace for a 90-point season (the Duke single-season record for midfield scoring is 65, set by Deemer Class last year). Class and Bruckner had hat tricks, and seven other Blue Devils contributed one goal apiece. Thomas Zenker ran most of the day with Seau and Scott on the second midfield, and his stabilizing influence helped the unit contribute three goals and two assists.

For Mercer, LeSane led the way with two goals. Four other Bears had one goal each.

Faceoffs and clears were dead even on the day, giving each team a total of 38 possessions. Duke shot 31.4 percent on the way to 42.1 percent offensive efficiency; the Blue Devils' defense held Mercer to 6-for-52 shooting (11.5 percent), limiting the Bears to 15.8 percent offensive efficiency.

Only one game this coming weekend: the Blue Devils travel to the frozen tundra of Stony Brook, NY to take on the Seawolves at noon EST on Sunday.

One assumes that the tape of Denver's demolition of the Duke defense will get extended and intense study in the days to come. The Pioneers are number one in every pre-season and early-season poll for a reason, and Duke got an up-close-and-personal look on Saturday. That they bounced back nicely on Sunday suggests that this team's ceiling hasn't been reached yet, and may not be reached for a while.