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John Danowski On What Could Be An Extraordinary Season For Duke Lacrosse

This could be one of the best teams in the history of Duke and not just lacrosse.

Duke v Syracuse
CICERO, NY - MARCH 24: Head Coach John Danowski of the Duke Blue Devils reacts to a call against the Syracuse Orange during the second half at Michael J. Bragman Stadium on March 24, 2019 in Cicero, New York. Syracuse defeated Duke 9-8 in overtime.
Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

John Danowski’s Duke men’s lacrosse team is loaded. They’re currently third in the nation with 17.25 goals per game, while allowing only 8.9 goals per game, seventh in the NCAA. They have experience, depth and top-tier talent; defender J.T. Giles-Harris, midfielder Nakeie Montgomery and attackers Mike Sowers and Joe Robertson are on the Tewaaraton watch list for the nation’s top player.

But coaches worry. It’s genetically encoded.

So, what keeps Danowski up at night?

I asked him that in a Wednesday Zoom and he said it was his wife hogging the comforter.

Sounds like a first-world problem.

But he made some additions.

“We’re so happy to be playing and coaching, I don’t know. Certainly, we always talk about what could go wrong. Every year it becomes the same things: we could lose face-offs, we can’t make a save, we’re seeing something different from our competition that we didn’t prepare for, we’re seeing a steady dose of zone or they’re shutting off somebody and how do we respond, reacting to being down early. But this year it’s such a blessing to be playing.”

Notice Danowski isn’t worried about a lack of talent. As with other sports, last year’s pandemic-related shutdown allowed seniors an extra season, while also opening up transfer portals.

Duke benefited both ways.

Look at Giles-Harris, the younger brother of former Duke football star Joe Giles-Harris. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to call Joe J.T.’s big brother. J.T. is that good, mobile, smart and skilled, arguably the nation’s best defender.

He says he didn’t think twice about coming back for his fifth year.

“Once I figured out I could come back it was a no-brainer.”

Sowers topped the transfer list. He played at Princeton last season and was named national player of the year by Inside Lacrosse.

Yes, the nation’s best player just showed up on Duke’s doorstep.

Well, it was a little more complicated than that. He could have gone anywhere.

Why Duke?

“Just going through the process and talking to people, after talking to guys like J.T., Terry [grad-student midfielder Terry Lindsay] and Coach D, it just felt like Duke was the best fit for me.”

He’s not the only consequential transfer. Starting goal keeper Mike Adler came in from Saint Joseph’s, while Phil Robertson augmented the attack-unit. He was Sowers’ teammate at Princeton and the older brother of Duke holdover Joe Robertson.

Joe missed all of last season with a knee injury but is back and playing at a high level. He led Duke in scoring in 2019 and has 21 goals so far this season.

Duke has 15 players in grad school.

And don’t forget Brennan O’Neill, arguably the nation’s top freshman. The 6-2, 230-pound attacker has been called lacrosse’s Zion Williamson.

He leads Duke with 22 goals.

Giles-Harris says integrating the new guys into the program and its culture was no problem.

“It’s easy having all my guys back from the class and having us hanging out with them and seeing how they fit in, helping us get to where we want to be by doing the things we think are the right way to do it. It’s easy because they’re all good guys.”

Sowers says he couldn’t find his way around campus for a few weeks but otherwise things have been great.

“It’s a testament to the leadership, the fifth-year leadership that we have, just how smooth the process was. I remember J.T. specifically, right after it was announced that I was coming to Duke, getting a text from him and getting a text from [grad-student] Reilly Walsh the first day I moved in, asking if I needed help moving into the house. I think that’s pretty unique for fifth-year guys to be so accepting of a transfer.”

Sowers leads Duke in scoring, with 18 goals and 26 assists, 44 points. He is fifth in the nation in assists per game.

Danowski says his team has reacted well to having more players than playing time.

“One thing that’s necessary is you have to have incredibly high-character kids in your program. You have to reward and celebrate your second team constantly, which we do. We have to be so mindful of that because people are playing new roles. Fifth-year seniors who came back, their roles have been reduced. We’ll play four freshmen tomorrow night. Despite the fact that we have older guys, four freshmen have figured out how to get in the lineup. We have transfers who are proving themselves and at the beginning you don’t want to like those guys because they are going to take away playing time from some of the guys you’ve built really strong relationships with. It is an opportunity for us to learn how to manage and lead and one which we don’t take lightly.”

Jake Naso is one of the freshmen who will see the field. He’s the primary guy at the X, the spot where face-offs are won and lost.

“He’s really a little more athletic than our other guys and that has maybe given him a little bit of an advantage going head-to-head in practice.”

Danowski says Duke aims for winning 55 percent of its face-off. Naso is at 65 percent so far.

Sowers is the highest-profile transfer but Adler may have the most responsibility.

It might seem easy to seamlessly slot into the goal at a new school but Danowski says it’s more nuanced than that.

“It sounds funny [to say] playing in our system. The game is the game and you try to keep it as simple as possible. But you play in a program for four years like he did at St. Joseph’s, you have habits, especially at goalie. You’re not going to change a goalie’s habits from high school and college in one year. You’ve got to get him to relax and just be himself. But he has to understand how we play defense, where we’re trying to drive people on the field, who it is we’re trying to be aware of. We always says ‘defend the knowns.’ Clearing is different in how we want to clear and where the looks are, the reads.”

Danowski adds that has been practicing by having shooters shoot tennis balls at Adler from short range to better simulate the speed of ACC shooters.

Adler has saved 61 percent, which ranks seventh nationally.

Duke is 8-0 and ranked second in the national media poll, a silly centimeter behind UNC. But the ACC gauntlet is about to begin, Syracuse on Thursday, North Carolina on Saturday. Five ACC teams play men’s lacrosse and all are ranked in the top-10 and Duke will not play anyone outside that group until the postseason.

“I think that the older guys on the team talk about it a lot,” Sowers says of beginning ACC play, “but you can feel the intensity, different energy, different vibe. Being a fan of the sport, watching from the outside, you know that anything can happen. Being a fan of the game, this is the stage you dream of playing on.”

“I think we’re still wondering,” Danowski acknowledges. “I think about 40 or 50 percent of the guys who will play tomorrow night have ever been in an ACC game. This is like the next step up. Not to belittle any former opponents but the intensity, the emotion, the excitement, the adrenalin, it’s just very different. I’m as curious as anyone else about tomorrow night.”

The Syracuse game with be broadcast on the ACC Network Thursday at 7.