June 1, 2010

Season Was Not Easy Sledding for Costabile

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Duke's CJ Costabile celebrates after his game-winning goal five seconds into overtime Monday in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship game.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

BALTIMORE, Md. -- There was still time remaining in regulation in Monday’s NCAA title game, but Duke assistant Chris Gabrielli was thinking ahead.

Thinking about overtime. Thinking about the potent pole who could possibly give the Blue Devils their first national title.

And perhaps even thinking about CJ Costabile’s wild ride over the last six months.

So with 14 seconds left and pretty much everyone among the 37,126 at M&T Bank Stadium keeping an eye on Max Quinzani and Ned Crotty, Gabrielli was pondering Costabile’s next move.

“I went over to him and said ‘CJ, if we go overtime, you’re it,’” Gabrielli said. “He knew that. He was savvy enough that he wanted to rest up enough to not even watch and just get himself ready. He went right out there and won it.”

Indeed he did, zipping in a shot five seconds into overtime to lift fifth-seeded Duke to a 6-5 defeat of Notre Dame and finally handing the Blue Devils their first national title in six trips to the final four.

The championship was won on a steamy Memorial Day. Yet in a bizarre way, it was nearly lost on a cold Connecticut day just before Christmas.

It was then Costabile -- who was coming off a seven-goal, six-assist freshman season -- got together with eight childhood buddies to resume the tradition of hopping on a sled during the winter.

Who would get hurt by that? As it turned out, Costabile suffered a severe ankle injury that held him out of the preseason.

“I’m what, 20 years old now?” Costabile said. “It’s probably not the best bet to do. I can’t ski. I can’t snowboard. So I’ll do something a little safer, and there was a fence in the way. That’s what killed me. But now, that’s kind of done and in the past.”

Everyone knows about Quinzani and Crotty, as well as Michael Manley and Parker McKee. But with the Blue Devils so reliant on pushing tempo, Costabile was quietly one of their most valuable returning players.

Until there was the threat he wasn’t coming back this season.

“You just smile, because they’re kids,” Duke coach John Danowski said. “You should be able to go sleigh riding. Downhill skiing? No. Hang gliding? You can wait. You’re sleigh riding with your boys, you go home for Christmas, you live in Connecticut. I get that. You’re thinking, great, just bad luck. But CJ worked his tail off to get back, because lacrosse is very important to him.”

And after Monday, there’s no question how important Costabile is to Duke.

*****

Somehow, Costabile didn’t miss any games. He did practice in the preseason, didn’t make the trip to Florida for Duke’s exhibition against the U.S. national team.

But he was there Feb. 13 when the Blue Devils opened with an overtime defeat of Bucknell.

Sort of, anyway.

Those who didn’t know about Costabile’s injury usually didn’t see a difference. But those who took a close look could tell he wasn’t himself.

“He wasn’t limping. It wasn’t any of that,” Gabrielli said. “He just didn’t have the endurance, and ultimately who knows how much he was hurting. We could see sometimes he wasn’t cutting his angles as sharply as he used to. He was kind of rounding them out. Then all the sudden, at the end, he’s himself.”

It just took a while. Costabile hoped he would be fine two weeks into the season. But he really wasn’t quite right until Duke’s upset victory at No. 1 Virginia on April 17.

Duke’s transition remained dangerous, with McKee and Tom Montelli both effectively pushing the tempo out of the Blue Devils’ defensive end. But Costabile remained a looming threat, particularly thanks to his faceoff work.

“It’s tough,” Costabile said. “It goes all the way back to you wanting to do everything you can. What hurt the most was sometimes people would end up catching me when I used to be able to run by people. That’s what  hurt the most, because I can create doing stuff like that -- getting Max open for a shot or give it to Ned and give him an assist.”

In time, it came. Costabile didn’t score in the regular season, a startling figure for a guy who had a hat trick in the ACC title game as a freshman. But then came two goals against North Carolina in the quarterfinals, and another in the semifinals against Virginia.

The most memorable, of course, will be his 10-yard dart in overtime against Notre Dame.

“There were a couple times in the middle of the season where you could see his speed wasn’t [there], his change of direction, but that’s not when we needed him,” Crotty said. “When we needed him, he showed up and did a great job. You could say he just won us a national championship off that draw. I’m very happy he got better when he did.

*****

When Gabrielli stood over him as a steamy afternoon neared its conclusion, Costabile wasn’t too worried about the outcome.

Sure, it was tied 5-5 with less than 20 seconds left. But time and again, the Blue Devils found an offensive spark in all the usual places.

“I had confidence,” Costabile said. “I really thought we were going to score in the last 14 seconds, and we’d get the Ned-to-Max action again and I was hoping for that. It didn’t happen, so now it was like, ‘You’ve got to step up and do your part,’ and it worked out really well for me.”

It unfolded simply enough. The pole had turned several faceoffs with Notre Dame’s Trever Sipperly into extended scrums, one that didn’t yield a ground ball for more than 40 seconds.

This one was clean, the first time all day Costabile had a credible chance to generate a break. From the far end of the field, midfielder Sam Payton knew the man he split Duke’s faceoff duties with had one thing in mind.

“He just kind of faded to the background, and all I saw was CJ come right down the middle,” Payton said. “When he goes like that, you know he’s shooting. I just held my breath.”

So, too, did everyone else. Notre Dame scampered to defend Crotty, Quinzani and Zach Howell.

Instead, it was a one-on-one matchup between Costabile and goalie Scott Rodgers.

If this was February, when the teams first met and Costabile was still ailing, chances are someone would have chased him down and maybe poked possession away from him.

But not on the sport’s greatest stage.

“Everyone was pretty much shut off,” Costabile said. “They were pretty tight on the attackmen, so I took my lane and it was open. Whether I decided to shoot high or low, I really couldn’t tell you. I just kind of let it rip.”

In it went, a cathartic moment for Duke. Teammates mobbed Costabile, and the Blue Devils soon took their national title trophy on a victory lap.

Costabile was right there with him, just as he was all season in spite of his injury.

“I love all the guys I play with, and sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t want to do for them,” Costabile said.

Five months after inadvertently imperiling his season and three months after playing through pain, Costabile authored a moment his teammates very much wanted from him -- and one sure to be remembered for years to come.


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